Conservative business people, not socialists, need liberal educations


Neither colleges nor corporate training programs are preparing managers to perform competently. The solution is “liberal education,” not more rigorous math and science curricula.

Tallulah Bankhead

“I read Shakespeare and the Bible, and I can shoot dice. That’s what I’d call a liberal education,” Tallulah Bankhead

Because mastery of complex science and technology is essential, business and political leaders fret that the cerebral shortcomings of American millennials will end the United States’ economic preeminence. They may be right!

However, the alarms are triggered by the wrong evidence. Management experts and educators are beginning to illuminate the real problem, but the suggested remedies are no more practical than purifying the world’s drinking water with coffee filters. If the Wright Brothers looked at the challenge of manned flight the way we see our educational deficiencies, they would suggest reducing human body weight to that of birds.

America’s commercial leadership didn’t result from having more A students than other countries. We are not going fix our schools and sustain knowledgeable, élite workers by narrowing our math/science learning gap with the rest of the world. In fact, that approach is blatantly anti-American.

In business, there are few “right answers”

Sure, it is unnerving to know that the U.S. ranks higher internationally in soccer than in education. But, our knowledge woes have nothing to do with rankings for “educational attainment” (14), literacy (24), PISA science score (23), and math progress (34). What do any of these measure? They tell us how many people know the right answers to the required questions.

More than anything else, colleges’ abandonment of “liberal education” is the greatest threat to producing excellent corporate employees. (BTW, the vast number of people who think liberal education means teaching evolution and safe sex in public schools proves the point.)

The concept of Liberal Education is NOT the same as getting a liberal arts degree.

In fact, there is nothing progressive about liberal education. The formal concept dates back to medieval times. As defined by the America Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), it is “an approach to learning that prepares people to deal with complexity, diversity, and change.” It is most often confused with liberal arts education, education that is “free of practical goals,” or letting teachers take parenting jobs. Not true at all.

Business leaders can’t ever get what they want

In various surveys, business leaders confirm that the skills they need most from graduates are those that can only be attained through liberal education. Last November, Forbes listed the The 10 Skills Employers Most Want In 2015 as gleaned from a survey of 260 companies (including technology-dependent giants Chevron, IBM and Seagate) by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

On the NACE list, decision-making, problem solving, organization and communication ranked as far more important than technical knowledge. Unfortunately, teaching these skills is not in the curricula of most business, accounting, marketing, computer science and engineering programs. Those degrees dominate the resumes of corporate managers, the people who supervise the work and make the day-to-day decisions in U.S. corporations.

Worry about the managers, CEOs will take care of themselves

A 2013 Harvard Business Publishing report Danger in the Middle: Why Mid-level Managers Aren’t Ready to Lead details the deficiencies of today’s managers and the depth of the problem. It stresses the growing importance of middle managers who are “asked to do more with fewer resources” as organizations have gotten flatter, more global and leaner. It suggests efforts to enhance their capabilities are impotent. The Harvard report quotes a 2010 Leadership Development Research Report by Bersin & Associates finding employers “rating nearly half of their mid-level managers (49 percent) as exhibiting Fair or Poor performance.” Harvard’s own research found that only 28% of organizations felt their development programs met the needs of managers.

While these studies conclude that companies need to overhaul internal training and development, asking people mid-career to “essentially reinvent what it means to be a manager” seems a tall order. They are already “on the verge of burning out” because they don’t know how to “help their companies achieve strategic goals by relying on strong influencing skills and the ability to marshal a complex network of resources to get results.” Those abilities can only be mastered by people who have a broad understanding of history, human nature, philosophy and communication.

A swarm of English majors won’t solve the problem

Most hiring managers and executives get it. In 2013, AAC&U reported that 93% of employers said “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”

Promoters of liberal arts education play up its value in developing future leaders. To make the case for diverse educational experiences, they point to heads of large corporations including Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Les Moonves of CBS, Ken Chenault of American Express, as well as famous dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But, an eat your vegetables and you can be a CEO when you grow up approach is unlikely to sway ambitious millenials selecting their majors.

A significant number of aspiring business people will never major in history or philosophy. Yet, that is the goal of AAC&U’s LEAP Challenge.

Philosopher Mortimer Adler

American philosopher Mortimer Adler defined liberal education as distinct from liberal arts. The city’s business élite took his renowned University of Chicago “adult education class” in the 1940s and 50s.

Young people shooting for careers in business want the benefits of playing on the field of commerce. Are they more likely to choose a college major because: a) An academic partnership explained why they need general knowledge and sound thinking to succeed in business? or, b) A chart showed that the four undergraduate degrees delivering the highest annual earnings are Engineering, Physical Sciences, Computer Sciences and Mathematics, Biology and Life Sciences, and Business? No brainer, dude!

Changing the menu is smarter than relocating the diners

Because corporations already have major investments in colleges and universities, they should convince those institutions to integrate liberal education curricula – and principles – into management, engineering, architecture, accounting and other programs. That approach could be organized and set to action more quickly than any other.

The late Mortimer Adler founder of the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas and Editor in Chief of its journal Philosophy is Everybody’s Business, said it best: “Liberal education, including all the traditional arts as well as the newer sciences, is essential for the development of top-flight scientists. Without it, we can train only technicians, who cannot understand the basic principles behind the motions they perform.”

How do Americans uniquely approach their challenges? We don’t measure what the rest of the world is doing and try to become better than them. We figure out the problem and come up with a practical solution. That is exactly what liberal education enables.

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