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Why the Liberal Arts? To Make Money!

Of course, not only to make money (think of the unexamined life and all that), but given the ongoing debate in The D about focused, skills-based education vs. the broader goals of the liberal arts, it’s worth making a practical, economic defense of a humanistic education. Chandrasekar Ramesh ‘14 (Overemphasizing the Liberal Arts) started things off: he was critical of the diffuse nature of a Dartmouth education, and he commented on mundane matters like starting salaries. Charles Clark ‘11 (The Value of a Liberal Education) replied with an emphasis on the importance of the liberal arts to the body politic. The latter is all well and good, but let me add some from-the-battlefield wisdom about the business side of the conversation.

Thumbnail image for TechnologyLiberalArts.pngThere is no better training for entrepreneurship than the liberal arts. If you are going to run a start-up, or take a business to a higher level, or aspire to be like Steve Jobs, think of the range of skills that you will need to acquire from your education. In no particular order, I hope that you will write and speak well (English and many other departments), have a sense of the law when talking to your lawyers (Government), show a gift for aesthetics when working with an ad agency (Art History and Studio Art); possess a facility with numbers and markets when you plan your business’ future (Economics), think wisely about your company’s role in the larger economy and understand how businesses can evolve (History), comprehend the development and flexibility of technologies (almost all of the Sciences), and on and on.

As a student at a liberal arts school, you have first and foremost learned to be a student. Therefore, in the business world, you will be competent to look at virtually any area of endeavor, and with sufficient time, you can study and understand a new field such that you are able to cooperate with and direct specialists. Of course, many people trained in narrow areas will know more than you about these specific subjects, but as an entrepreneur, you will make the final decision on the proposals that they put before you. And that’s how it should be, for you care more about your business than they ever will, and only you can see how their narrow ideas fit into the larger goals of your enterprise.

After receiving a humanistic education, you will be well versed in problem solving, for at the heart of your education is the study of how men and women throughout history have met challenges and overcome them (or failed to do so; both subjects are useful). You will reason analogically about such things in your own business life, and this background will offer you solutions that a narrow set of technical skills will not provide.

More broadly, as you function as a leader, the humanism of the liberal arts will equip you to understand people: how to manage them, how to sell to them, how to make products for them. That understanding will constantly evolve, but the basis for it, the central ideas that will animate your sense of humanity, will come from the four years as an undergraduate that you spent studying human beings in all their complicated and contradictory glory.

The subjects central to liberal learning seem almost endless when you give the question some thought. How about including creativity, imagination, ethics, and experience with foreign languages and cultures in the mix? Not that these subjects are the exclusive domain of the liberal arts, but at schools with narrower instruction they are not emphasized formally.

People shuns such knowledge at their own risk. Students who would give up a course in 20th Century African-American Literature, or the Art of the Southern Baroque, or Political Speech in America, or the Historiography of the Holocaust — all courses that I have audited at Dartmouth in the last few years — in order to earn extra credits beyond the requirements of the major in, say, Computer Science or Economics or Biology, are missing out on an entire dimension of learning, one that will be immensely valuable when they are managing a business in the real world. My advice: don’t do it.

All that said, I hope that many non-Dartmouth people do follow Chandrasekar Ramesh’s advice and get a narrow, highly specialized education. The business world needs employees with these specific skills; entrepreneurs like you need people like that.

Addendum: Among law schools, the so-called national law schools (i.e. the Top 20 or so) distinguish themselves via a curriculum that is more intellectual and theoretical than that of the local schools. At Yale the joke was that the Law School was just a graduate school in disguise — thusly named so that people could get jobs after graduation. The deeper truth, however, is that learning to see the law and the world from a broad, humanistic perspective makes for much better lawyers.

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