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 doesnt 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. Hollingers 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 knights 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 managers 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 fools errand.
White, Erin. 2005. Future CEOs May Need to Have Broad Liberal-Arts Foundation. Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal. April 12, 2005.