Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"Do something USEFUL!" - Why a Liberal Arts Degree When Business is Where You Make Money?

About a year ago, I was finishing up my first semester as a Philosophy student. I had been taking an equally marketable degree - English - when I discovered the amazing world that is Philosophy. I was like a teenager in love. I was so head over heels that I was dizzy from all the thought I was absorbing.

Early in the semester, I encountered a woman who was auditing a class in the History of Renaissance Philosophy. She loved history and wanted to see what this class was all about, but it was a bad fit. She had been expecting a class that covered the History of Philosophy instead the class was all about reading the Philosophy of the Renaissance period. Our professor was a brilliant teacher and had us reading primary texts - Machiavelli, Montaigne and Bacon, as well as some lesser-known figures of Renaissance philosophy.  It just wasn't what she'd been expecting and she was unhappy. She didn't want to read Philosophy, she wanted to read about it.

One day, during her lament that she was wasting her time reading things that were completely useless, she asked me, "So, what's your major."

"Uh, Philosophy," I said with a bright, but wry, grin.

She reached over the table urgently, put her hand next to mine and said with great intensity, "Oh honey, take something useful --something like Accounting or Marketing. You'll starve with a Liberal Arts degree!"

I laughed, and said, "Well, I don't think I'll starve!" At the time, my husband and I were living with my parents. After 20 years of toughing it out just above the poverty line, we had succumbed to the latest economic crisis and had effectively become homeless in our early forties. I had 20 years of work experience behind me and a degree -any degree - would improve my job prospects. But, because I was "drunk in love" with Philosophy I didn't hear the larger problem with her assertion that Philosophy was not useful.

The Liberal Arts have been taking a hit in the press and in the political arena recently. With the rise of so-called "competency-based" programs and the touting of vocational training rather than college education, getting a degree in a Liberal Arts field looks like a relic from the 80's. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

When I graduated, I was hired on at my alma mater within two weeks of my commencement. It's really a dream job and I love it. I help renovate lives so that those people can, in turn, renovate their families and the community around them.

That sounds like a pretty lofty mission, but it's the truth.

I work in the Adult and Continuing Education Program and we serve adult students who are taking another shot at getting their bachelor's degree. Currently, the program is a business program, but because our university is a liberal arts institution, all the students have to take English, History, Art, Social and Physical Sciences, and of course, Philosophy and Theology. And I believe, that it makes them better people, not just better workers.

That's because when I look at the world around me, I don't see cogs in a machine. I don't see people as expendable or a means to profit. What I see are human beings - whole persons - with lives like mine. They have faced disappointments and challenges. They have lost loved ones and they have family crises, just like I do. It is this realization that I am not just dealing with enrollment and retention numbers that drives me.

Where did I get this perspective? From my Liberal Arts education. The Liberal Arts are a record of humanity - of our thoughts, feelings, wisdom, mistakes and missteps, and our greatest moments.

You see, when we consider how people make decisions and employ better logic skills to our own decisions (Philosophy), when we consider others' cultural and religious backgrounds (Social Sciences, History, and Theology), and we can empathize with what they might be going through (Literature), we can lead and/or serve them more effectively.

When we realize, as we preside over our little cubicle farms, that the inhabitants of those little boxes, are actual people with lives just like ours, we can change the world. Cubicle dwellers have hopes and dreams, triumphs and tribulations, too. And when we, as managers or co-workers, address those hopes, trials, and triumphs, we gain their trust and we move up in our companies more quickly.

This is why the Liberal Arts so important and it's the crucial piece that my classmate missed. She didn't want to talk about Machiavelli, Montaigne and Bacon. She didn't really care to know about the early growth of the political and social philosophies that shape our everyday experience here in the 21st century. She didn't see the worth in discussing the earliest writings on Leadership and Change Management. She didn't see the link between The Prince and The New Atlantis, and the boardroom, but I do.

If you want to succeed, you have to have people follow you.
If you want to have people follow you, you must lead.
If you want to effectively lead, you must know how to inspire.
If you want to inspire, you must know what makes people tick.
If you want to know what makes people tick, you have to study the Liberal Arts.

And, by the way, in case you're wondering, I'm not starving.

Art Credit: "Hortus Deliciarum, Die Philosophie mit den sieben freien K√ľnsten" by Herrad von Landsberg - Hortus Deliciarum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. (Translation: "Philosophy with the seven Liberal Arts")

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