CEOs and the liberal arts

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The CEO, student of Boethius? Chief executives who have been to the Platonic cave and back again? Senior managers who know their Jane Austin?

Today, the Wall Street Journal issues another call for a liberally educated CEO.

“It’s about maturity and leadership rather than how many accounting courses did you take,” Mr. Veruki says. “Companies are going to start to look at the fundamental value set of an individual and their basic education. Did they study philosophy and culture and history rather than just accounting, finance and engineering? Fast-forward 20 or 30 years, we’re going to find [business leaders] who maybe majored in philosophy rather than business.” [Peter Veruki is head of external relations at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.]

This WSJ story is a perennial. It appears each April in the business press, from which it is ripped by Latin scholars and history teachers and pinned to that profusion of notices on the professorial portal, delicately to scent the halls with new optimism and confuse passers-by with that self defeating protest, “damn it, we are not irrelevant.”

It is of course a splendid idea. CEOS are living in a world of vertiginous complexity. The world now moves so quickly, we can almost see the hands move on the IBM clock. The CEO now needs formidable powers of pattern recognition. He or she doesn’t have to know anything about Plato qua Plato. But a chance to think as Plato thought, a chance to think the things Plato thought, supplies patterns so powerful, so revelational that any one of them might serve to help a CEO see a forest in the trees. Some CEOS like to wear their learning on their sleeve. Hollinger’s Lord Black was one. (Little Latin, less Geek?) No, what we want is not the content but the form of Platonic thinking, the better to parse and shape problem sets of which the immortal could not dream (but now observes with interest).

The trouble, as we have noted in this blog before, is that the Liberal arts have been taken hostage by the antiquarians on the one side and the world renouncers on the other. The antiquarians do love their special studies so well that they will not release their forms for other intellectual activities. The usual study of Peloponnesian wars grinds very fine and thin. It is only sometimes about bigger pictures and larger forces. Mostly, it is designed to satisfy an academic agenda, and this is its own little battle field, a million small qualifications mobilized to defend the author from criticism only another academic could think up. Can this study gift the CEO with new powers of pattern recognition? No freakin way.

But the world renouncers are much worse. These are the radicals with tenure, the people who took to the academy so that they could absent themselves from the real world, and who know use their redoubt to mock and scorn anyone who engages with it. To think that these people might have any influence over the education of a CEO is a prospect to horrible to contemplate. And this brings us to the nub. Students who would prepared themselves for senior management with a liberal degree have a very good chance of being taken captive by the nit wits. The would-be CEO who enters the liberal arts has taken up a knight’s quest that only the most exceptional can survive.

So, by all means, let us encourage this idea that the liberal arts are necessary part of the senior manager’s education. But let us insist that CEOs pursue this exceptional knowledge from the venues where the well runs pure: night school and self instruction. Everything else is a fool’s errand.


White, Erin. 2005. Future CEOs May Need to Have Broad Liberal-Arts Foundation. Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal. April 12, 2005.

18 thoughts on “CEOs and the liberal arts

  1. Matt

    I continue to wonder why anyone actually studies those things in college anymore. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars per year and go deep into debt to support radical lunatics who can’t earn a proper living, just to read the same books you can get in the library for free?

    Anyone intellectually strong enough to withstand four years of university LA education and emerge with his or her sanity and reason intact would be, by definition I think, strong enough to get the same value from independent study, with far fewer risks and far lower costs.

  2. Rob

    I concur. Self-study is much more rewarding. You find out what YOU want to find out, without a lot of politically correct BS about how the obvious facts you can see with your own eyes are, in fact, merely an illusion created by 21st century imperial capitalism.

    It seems to me that there might be an interesting niche out there for a an online “college” that is oriented around self-study and uses tests and surveys to suggest reading material and websites. One of the hardest things about self-study is finding out what you don’t know.

    For example, over the last few years, I’ve read a number of classical works of literature, but there are hundreds more. Which are the most important to read? I would love to know, for example, just how important is it that I read the Bronte sisters? Mildly? Highly?

  3. Ennis

    Ah – but everybody here (Grant included) is working from the presumption that these are deep works which will serve to better us. What if we’re wrong? Maybe they’re just old. Maybe the whole myth of the classics is just a crock, despite the Straussian propaganda coming down the pike …

    Maybe the best way to learn to recognize patterns isn’t to read Aristotle, but instead to study engineering or math. Why should Aristotle or Plato teach us much about pattern recognition anyway?

  4. Steve

    I studied Commerce and Arts concurrently in university. I was a part of a tiny test class in a new joint degree (I chose to major in marketing and sociology). This was an insightful process in itself, not least because the business and liberal arts faculties were completely different worlds – Powerpoint and suits in one, dreadlocks and poetry in the other. But ultimately I found the experience invaluable and would definitely recommend embellishing one’s practical business education with liberal arts teachings (or vice versa) – especially for the leadership level.

  5. Matt

    Ennis: I won’t speak for anyone else, but I presume no such thing. Nor do I assume that any one person’s opinion on what is “good” is binding on anyone else…at least not in the liberal arts.

    I’m merely speaking of the ability to learn that which one wishes to learn, and/or gain the capacity to impress those who are impressed by having learned specific things. I’d postulate that the latter is the primary motivator for the overwhelming majority of college students (it certainly was for everyone I’ve ever known, and seemed to be for every college graduate I’ve ever considered for a job).

  6. Jennifer Walsingham

    My composition students at the University of West Florida are exploring the topic of liberal arts courses and the role (if any) that general studies should play in a college education. The results of their research will be submitted to the UWF Dean of Arts and Sciences, Provost, and President, all of whom are considering ways to reform the general studies program here. I look forward to reading their ideas.

  7. Brandon McKenzie

    I feel that liberal arts courses should be mandatory in today’s college education system. These courses help students become more familiar with the world they live in. I don’t necessarily think that all liberal arts courses that we are required to take should be taken, for example, a students majoring a marine biology will have no need to take a music appreciation course. The department of your major should hand pick the liberal arts courses that you will have to take.

    Liberal arts courses do more in shaping the minds of students not educating them. This is the point many people are missing and why they should be required in college. I know for a fact that high school does not prepare a student for college (at least my high school didn’t).

  8. Brent Hough

    I believe that taking the liberal arts out of a college education would be an injustice to students. The liberal arts are more than just learning different subjects. Liberal arts teach a person to adapt to changing situations and understand the world as a whole better, which could make them more successful in the career path that they do choose. I understand that some majors require more specialized courses than others, but liberal arts classes could be tailored to that specific major. The liberal arts are people skills, so they could help anyone no matter what their major or career path. I believe that they are more important now than ever due to all of the international business and world conflicts. The idea of someone being able to better understand the world and adapt to changing situations is reason enough to keep the liberal arts as part of the core college experience.

  9. Josh Arrowood

    Liberal Arts are an essential part of the college experience and should remain intact. Though students often complain about being required to take courses they aren’t interested in or don’t apply to their prospective field, these very same courses shape the students into the (hopefully) well-rounded broad knowledged individuals they will be upon graduation.

    Students today frequently change their majors multiple times prior to graduation. Liberal arts courses at the very least play a key role in time killing and allow the student to mature into the career-minded adult they plan to be one day. Who knows, perhaps that time spent in comp class might turn on that “light bulb” we’re all looking to find.

  10. Brian Smith

    Many scholars believe liberal education promotes critical thinking, self-awareness, and civic responsibility. Most people believe these skills are beneficial in the work environment. But do the liberal arts actually promote these skills or can students learn these skills through career training?
    I believe education’s usefulness is contingent upon the quality of instruction. I have taken many badly taught general studies courses that have only furthered my distaste for the liberal arts. In several of my liberal education classes the professors would not test from their lectures, were rude, and completely incompetent. As a result, I have yet to use any of the skills I have acquired from these courses. Some people believe that self-study is the best way to learn, but I believe that students need teachers to help clarify misunderstandings that students may encounter during their study. Moreover, others have suggested taking liberal arts out of colleges altogether.
    Students can receive high quality education with the proper balance of career training and liberal education. Many colleges are finding this balance through a customized liberal education. The Consortium of Liberal Education for Artist promotes customized liberal education; prestigious members of the organization include The Juilliard School and Eastman School of Music. I believe that if every college adopted these policy students would receive the best education by using liberal arts to compliment their career training.

  11. Samantha Wiggins

    A liberal education can be useful in today’s work force. Today more people are required to take liberal arts courses because universities believe the students need a broad education. More employers are hiring liberally educated graduates instead of graduates that have only taken the courses for their major. Corporate businesses are looking for students with liberal educations, because they will be more open minded, and will need less training. Most universities are trying to incorporate liberal studies courses into the course requirements. I believe that liberal arts should be a part of the general studies requirements. The liberal arts teaches students you how to learn and study more efficiently. I believe colleges should find new ways to get students involved with the liberal arts. Liberal arts courses free student’s minds and also let think as individuals. I believe liberal arts courses should be required at all universities because these concepts help students to develop certain skills needed for the workforce.

  12. Jasmine Romaine

    Albert Camus quotes, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” I believe a liberal education is vital to colleges. A liberal education helps students become better efficient in working environments. Without being involved in liberal arts students can not build critical and analytical skills. I can agree with some students that a lot of money is spent towards learning material not related to student’s field of study, but in the “real world” a college education including general studies will help students acquire a broader concept in the skills needed for work.

    Liberal arts helps to mold students to be more diverse in learning and flexible in the workforce. Many general studies course should be required of every student because students never know when a situation may come up to speak their thoughts. When students go into vocational studies they learn material which only benefits the purpose of their work. Why should students learn only their trade? I believe the studies one will learn in college will help one become well rounded in their chosen field.

  13. Crystal Evans

    Liberal arts classes are important for all college students, they increase communication and critical thinking skills. If the Universities reform their curriculum for liberal arts classes the administrators should consider that not all liberal arts classes can just be removed from the curriculum. Certain majors are going to need specific liberal arts classes, but majors such as business will have no use for a visual arts class. English and Mathematics courses should be required at least to a certain level. But, sciences such as biology have no place unless a student is intending on a scientific career, and the same can be said for history courses. The University of West Florida only requires one out of two history classes, which would lead a student to believe that history does not have a lot of importance placed on it. Students may not wish not to pay the “excessive” fees of college it is an experience that cannot be replicated and there are certain lessons in college that are necessary. In any profession a person needs to know how to communicate with other employees in their workplace, and this communication must be intelligent. Not only do people need to know how to speak to someone, they need to know how to write efficiently. Balancing a checkbook or figuring a balance are necessary and require at least a basic mathematic understanding. These are just a few of the reasons not all liberal arts classes can be removed and most majors should have their own curriculum tailored to their needs.

  14. Sandra Park

    I think there’s a lot more to gaining a liberal arts education at a university than simply acquiring content knowledge. The whole class experience in courses like sociology or psychology (provided discussion is allowed) can lead the way to greater understanding of both the content and of other people. The ability to hear opinions about a topic from students with varying backgrounds, interests, and viewpoints is a benefit of discussion-based classroom education that should not be dismissed lightly. Such an experience can broaden the mind and help people see things from different angles. I firmly believe that the more people gain the ability to see problems and situations from another’s point of view, the better they become at being leaders and resolving issues — qualities most people will need for both their jobs and life in general. This benefit of discussion-based classroom education in the liberal arts is why I believe that a person’s college experience should include a variety of subjects regardless of his or her major. The content knowledge can be replicated, but the classroom experience cannot.

  15. Crystal Evans (Actual Blog)

    Liberal arts classes are important for all college students, because they increase communication and critical thinking skills. Even if the Universities reform their curriculum for liberal arts classes, not all liberal arts classes can just be removed from the curriculum. Certain majors are going to need specific liberal arts classes, but majors such as business will have no use for a visual arts class. A student majoring in law would have no use for a musical appreciation class. These classes are deemed unnecessary, classes that have no value to the major a student is studying. English and mathematics courses should be required at least to a certain level. But sciences such as biology have no place unless a student is intending on a scientific career, and the same can be said for history courses. The University of West Florida o requires only one out of two history classes, which would lead a student to believe that history does not have a lot of importance placed on it. But that is only UWF. Students may not wish not to pay the “excessive” fees of college it is an experience that cannot be replicated and there are certain lessons in college that are necessary. In any profession a person needs to know how to communicate effectively both in speech and in writing. Liberal arts cannot be replaced or completely removed from the curriculum and most majors should have their own curriculum tailored to their needs.

  16. Jeff Russell

    While at college, students experience changes in many different ways. They mature socially and academically. This maturity is something that is also necessary to succeed in today’s business world. There are many other skills and abilities acquired throughout the college experience which aid in a student’s successful life. I believe a college education is extremely important in today’s society. Part of receiving a college education is going through a general studies program. General study courses have helped me out tremendously by giving me time to develop study habits for the remainder of my college experience. General education courses help a student prepare for the business world by molding him into a well-rounded person. William Cronon stated ten skills that are acquired when a student is liberally educated in his article “Qualities of the Liberally Educated Person.” A few of these skills are “They can talk with anyone, they practice respect and humility, tolerance, and self-criticism, and they nurture and empower the people around them.” These are all skills that can be used in the business world in today’s society. College is a time of maturing, learning, and preparing oneself for the business world. All the skills and abilities a student picks up from the college experience will help him in one way or the other.

  17. Travis McDaniel

    I think that liberal arts are a waste of time and money. Why should an English major have to take a botany class? It’s pointless, and senseless. People say if you have these classes then you will be a more “well-rounded” person. The only time it would come in handy to know this information is in a trivia game, or to prove that you’re smarter than the guy down the street who didn’t go college. But is that the only purpose it serves? Some colleges are thinking about taking these classes out of the requirements. So that thought leads me to believe this. It’s almost seems as if colleges know that we don’t need these classes, yet they still make us take them because that’s two more years they get our money. I think the general education classes we should have to take should be based around our major. A math major should only have to take classes that have math in them. He shouldn’t have to take a marine biology class that is not going to benefit him in the math field. This idea seems like the only thing that makes sense without anyone wasting any of our time and money.

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