Fareed Zakaria, columnist and CNN host, wrote a book last year titled “In Defense of a Liberal Education”. He discusses (quoting from the book jacket) “the virtues of a liberal arts education – how to write clearly, how to express yourself convincingly, and how to think analytically.” Zakaria premise is that while professional and vocational skills are important, so too are “the skills of creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication and the ability to continually learn… precisely the gifts of a liberal education.”
Many colleges are recognizing that it’s not an either-or scenario. When a student combines a pre-professional degree in business or STEM with liberal arts learning, it may be the best of both worlds. Two deans at Lehigh University address this holistic approach in “Liberal Arts or Business Education? Both”. Some schools like Bryant University require that students majoring in business must also have a liberal arts minor (and vice versa). Interdisciplinary programs are becoming commonplace (see “Business Schools Give Undergraduate Programs a Liberal Arts Twist”). And it’s not just for business majors. Northeastern University offers BS degrees in intriguing combinations such as Computer Science/History and CS/Philosophy.
But in a world driven by hard metrics like technical superiority and financial advantage, how would someone benefit from having these soft liberal arts skills? Either you can code the next great app… pick winning stocks… come up with the next disruptive business model for the sharing economy… or not. Pretty clear, no? Maybe this is where those other skills can make a difference. Are you able to articulate the persuasive vision and the compelling elevator pitch? Are you able to design great products and tell their story too? Are you able to solve complex problems that require broad thinking and creativity to reach across disciplines?
Steve Jobs famously explained that “it is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
This benefit applies to science and medicine as well. Thomas Cech, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, draws the analogy to cross-training in sports, where there is value in developing a broad set of muscle groups and athletic skills. “Analogously, a liberal arts education encourages scientists to improve their competitive edge by cross-training in the humanities or arts, developing the ability to organize facts, analyze opinions and articulate an argument, which may be more effective than writing yet another lab report.” This belief is being put into practice at Mount Sinai’s school of medicine, as reported in “English Majors Can Be Doctors Too: Medical School Rethinks Pre-Med”. A dean at Mount Sinai advocates that “Science is the foundation of an excellent medical education, but a well-rounded humanist is best suited to make the most of that education.”
These are not new thoughts. A report by Yale way back in 1828, cited in Zakaria’s book, suggested that the essence of a liberal education was “not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions, but to lay the foundation which is common to them all.” Today career experts advise about the importance of basic skills training in your first job, but the need for critical thinking and effective communication to take you further. To quote Dan Everett, dean at Bentley University, in an article called "Business and Liberal Arts Need Each Other ": “You need the business skills to get a job. You need the arts and science background to make partner.”