Another Skidmore student, my friend Keith Petri , asked whether employers find a liberal arts education valuable. He pointed out that even with the increasing number of people in specialized (pre-professional) programs – which is roughly 50% now – around 70% of business leaders come from a liberal arts background. Is that percentage a leftover that will continue to diminish (e.g. to 20%, with pre-professional programs like business accounting for 80% of business leaders), or is there something to the liberal arts education that allows them to flourish in business?
Since I have some time while travelling on the train down to NYC, let’s see if I can add to the discussion.
In January of this year, the New York times published an article about how business schools were beginning to value “critical thinking” – the approach traditionally associated to the liberal arts.
But what is a “liberal arts education”? What characterizes; and what separates one from a specialized (or “applied”) degree like business, mechanical engineering, or computer science? Is it “critical thinking”? In that case, what is critical thinking?
First of all, let’s look at what each type of education attempt to accomplish. A specialized degree program, quite rightly, provides deep domain-specific knowledge, and an understanding of “what to do when.” A liberal arts degree, in contrast, focuses on “general” knowledge by examining a wide variety of subjects (e.g. literature, history, philosophy, science, mathematics, etc). The liberal arts program assumes that there is some general intellectual skill which can be applied to any area of study; Keith refers to this as “critical thinking.” Ideally, a liberal arts degree equips a graduate to process, understand, criticize, and synthesize information from multiple different sources.
A liberal arts education does not purport to teach people what to do in certain situations. Certainly, a handful of classes may address such topics – take a course in business law, for instance – but knowledge of appropriate action is only a side effect of the course, and not its goal. The purpose is to try to understand what’s occurring “beneath the surface” (a favorite phrase for professors!).
What’s “beneath the surface”? It’s whatever drives the information you’re seeing. The key tool students use is asking “Why?” – why did this happen as opposed to some other possible “counterfactual.” Since the question is rarely addressed easily, students are taught a number of tools to help them on the way: drawing links between seemingly dissimilar things, identifying recurring patterns, questioning other possibilities (what could have, but didn’t, happen), and developing and modifying explanatory theories.
Certainly, specialized degree programs do some of this as well. It’s impossible to apply the correct course of action if you’re unaware which action to take – in other words, you have to understand the situation to know what to do.
The difference is in the emphasis; in applied programs, the emphasis is on correctly identifying the situation, then taking the appropriate action. An example of this distinction is the “case study” favored by Harvard Business School. The analysis they favor is a two-step procedure. First, students “identify the problem,” and then they “examine the causes and consider alternative courses of action.” To paraphrase, the students identify (i) the problem the company has, (ii) why the company has the problem (what’s led up to the problem), and (iii) given the goals of the company, what actions should the company taken. Students can then criticize what the company did do based on their analysis of the company’s situation, and try to think of something which would have been more effective.
In other words, business school students employ the case study method to hone their ability to apply the right course of action. Frequently, understanding the problem you really have in business – as opposed to the problem you think you have – is a challenge; and even more frequently, you have multiple courses of action in any situation. The goals of the case study approach is to develop the skill of identifying the “real problem,” and then choosing the course of action most likely to be effective. The emphasis is on identifying the correct course of action.
In the liberal arts, professors emphasize that there is no “right” answer (well, except in mathematics). Of course, this isn’t precisely true – even if there is no “right” answer, there are certainly better answers. And, in fact, the goal of a liberal arts education is to teach people how to develop those “better” answers. In some ways, it’s very similar to a business education: the goal is to identify the key elements of the data, and then construct the theory which has the most “explanatory value.” And, of course, like business students can criticize sub-par courses of action, the liberal arts student can criticize sub-par theories.
So is the above distinction sufficient? Is it enough to say that “specialized programs teach people what to do” and that “liberal arts programs teach people to explain”?
Well, not entirely. As I mentioned earlier, the liberal arts believes that their core skill – “critical thinking” – can be applied to multiple disciplines. And it’s here – with the emphasis on applying a single, unified analytical approach to multiple disciplines – that the strength of a liberal arts program is seen.
Specialized programs, such as business, exist in “silos.” That is to say, there’s the domain knowledge of “how to do business” that’s been accumulated by business leaders, codified in books by academics, been analyzed at great length by academics (business, economics, etc) and so on. The purpose of the business program is to impart this knowledge: to teach the student what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and how to determine what to do when presented with each situation.
The liberal arts student does not have the luxury of a codified base of knowledge. Instead, each discipline in the liberal arts education has its own accumulated store of knowledge. Within each discipline, as within business, there are multiple – frequently clashing – theories about what the truth is. But beyond that, each discipline invariable contradicts core, foundational aspects of the other disciplines. You can use published research in one discipline to completely discredit (logically) vast portions of another discipline. Yet the other discipline remains largely true, despite seeming contradictions on a massive level.
The liberal arts student is forced to recognize the inherent uncertainty in large portions of knowledge he previously thought unquestionable. Moreover, they are forced to apply their critical thinking skills across disciplines, synthesizing substantial amounts of information which can initially seem both unrelated and even contradictory. The challenge is to identify how the information relates; to determine how similar two different theories are (e.g. the close similarities between Buddhism and Feminism); to identify weak points in an overarching theory.
Above all, the liberal arts student learns that outside of mathematics, there is no right answer, no right way. There are no reliable rules of thumb, no guaranteed assumptions. The emphasis must be placed on explaining, and understanding, because even will all our experience, all our knowledge, all our science, we still do not know the truth. Relying on answers provided by a single theory, in a single discipline, will always break down: the goal is to explain when they will break down, and why.
Of course, the upshot of this discussion is that neither one is better than the other. Taking the liberal arts approach too fanatically will lead to “analysis paralysis,” where any action is better than no action. Conversely, exclusively focusing on the applied approach will regularly lead to failure as the system the applied people work within breaks down – witness this last financial crisis.
On the other hand, I’m biased towards the “liberal arts program” I’ve described. In part, that’s because I believe that the lowering costs of storing and retrieving information make the critical thinking skills increasingly valuable. Identifying the situation and choosing the best course of action are challenging – but between advanced statistics to aid in the identification, and (vertical) search engines to provide the latter, the amount of time it takes to check is anyone else has been presented with the same problem and come to a solution is almost not worth considering. Furthermore, the lowering transaction costs of doing business means that the world is changing faster and faster – if this keeps up, then we may see the education acquired at business school obsolete by the time students graduate.
We can already see that the amount of information students need to absorb has grown to such an extent that undergraduate business majors are specializing; for instance, in “finance” or “strategy,” or “entrepreneurship.” As the knowledge we have accumulates at an ever-increasing rate, eventually specialization may not be enough – that is, you won’t be able to get a good grasp of the subject in as little as four years. The choice are (i) expand the amount of time you spend studying, (ii) diminish the goals of the specialized program, or (iii) changing the focus onto “knowing where to look” to find the answer. In many ways, we are already shifting towards (iii): it’s become almost a truism in business that “knowing where to find the answer is more important than having the answer.”
It is not a significant jump from “learning how to find the information” to “learning how to critically analyze the information, and synthetize information from multiple conflicting sources to construct a perfectly appropriate theory.”
My bias is also why I constructed my own major [PDF], focusing on the aspects of the liberal arts program I’ve outlined here. Naturally, time will tell whether my bias is justified – or not.
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