What is the best preparation for someone aspiring to a business career? If I had dollars for the number of times in my life I have heard this question asked and answered I would likely be a millionaire. It is one of the most frequent questions students ask when contemplating what to study and how to prepare for a career.
Invariably, the answers to this question usually focus on Commerce or Business Administration. After all, what could be better training for industry than courses in accounting, marketing and finance? However, at the risk of being considered a contrarian let me respectfully submit that while these skills are important, a liberal arts background also provides some extremely important skills that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Obvious Route Isn’t Always the Best
Prior to going into coaching I worked for nearly forty years in the corporate world. I’ve also taught at three post-secondary Business Schools. During my teaching career I’ve taught about thirty different courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Two Graduate Certificate classes I taught in Industrial Relations in 2021 and 2022 were particularly noteworthy. Both classes had a high percentage of exceptional students. I easily had ten to fifteen students in both sections who I would have hired in a heart-beat.
Looking back on what made these classes unique I’m struck by the backgrounds of many of my students. I had kids from several liberal arts disciplines including Italian, French, English, Criminology, Social Work, History and Political Science. The enthusiasm, energy and motivation they brought to each and every class was energizing, and made my role as professor both enjoyable and challenging. For me, the most well-rounded, versatile and dedicated students have come from the liberal arts.
What is it about the liberal arts that provides such an important scholastic foundation for business? I would submit there are six things that a liberal arts education provides that position graduates in this stream for careers in business:
1) Critical Analysis: A key element of liberal arts education is the ability to critique. In its simplest form this means dissecting a situation in an effort to examine its value and composition. Disciplines such as Fine Arts, English and History are predicated on examining works or events in an effort to gain better understanding of what is produced. This skill is critical to understanding hidden meanings, nuances and subtleties. By contrast, my experience with business education is that it too often it has become mechanical, rote learning, and the absolute is not as significant as the relative.
2) Written and Oral Communication: The ability to write clearly is, I regret to say, a dying skill. I am often astounded at the poor level of grammar, spelling and writing composition in the papers many of my students submit. Many students, particularly and not just recent high school graduates, lack the ability to construct coherent sentences. Don’t get me started on spelling and grammar. From my experience having graded hundreds of papers those who receive better marks are invariably students from a liberal arts discipline.
3) Individual Study: Most liberal arts disciplines are geared towards individual assignments and papers. While there is an occasional group activity, typically, these are the exception rather than the norm. By contrast, a disproportionate number of business courses focus on group work. The rationale given is that increasingly, in a business environment, employees need to complete work in tandem with others.
Being able to function in a collegial team environment is considered critical to business success. Over the past five years I’ve witnessed an increasing shift in all the courses I have taught towards group work. It used to be that 25 – 30% of a student’s grades were based on group work. Now, it is closer to 60 – 75%. Sadly, what this often means is that weaker students invariably get pulled along by stellar performers, and reap the benefits of the superlative performance of a few. Rather than having their work evaluated on its own merits many business students experience a bump up in grades of anywhere from 5 to 25% depending on their group to which they are assigned.
4) Understanding the Broader Universe: Generally, my experience has been that liberal arts students operate with a broader frame of reference and a more comprehensive global perspective. Their knowledge of current events is stronger, and they can communicate on a variety of different levels beyond their academic discipline. Sadly, I’m increasingly astounded at the limited range of interests and awareness many business students possess.
5) Strategic Thinking: Liberal arts students know how to think strategically, as well as laterally. They see connections between issues. They look beyond the obvious for patterns, differences and motivations. Too often, business students are caught up in the immediate, and lack the ability to view things holistically.
6) Lack of conformity: Walk into a business class, or listen in on group discussions, and what you often hear is a lack of variety. Unanimity of thought is pervasive, and unusual, creative or “out-of-the-box” thinking is a rarity. By contrast, liberal arts students exhibit, based on what I have observed, greater variation and uniqueness in their ideas. They are more difficult to characterize, and harder to typecast.
A Final Thought…
Although I have Masters degrees in two business related disciplines my undergraduate degree was in History and Political Science. I spent a third of my career working in the financial sector, and another third in different industry sectors.
One question I was frequently asked in job interviews earlier in my career was: why did you major in History & Political Science and not Business? I tried various approaches when answering this question, everything from my active political involvement, to my love of history, to the fact that at one time I contemplated teaching History at the high school level. Truth is though: I elected to major in something that I was really interested and good at rather than something that was strictly utilitarian. I was a very good History student. I would have been, at best, a very mediocre Business student.
Do I regret not majoring in Business? Absolutely not. My liberal arts education provided me with so many transferable, unique and important life skills and insights for which I am profoundly grateful. I loved my undergraduate education. I relished being responsible for my own academic success. I revelled in the many demanding courses I took, and I don’t, even for a second, regret one moment of the four years I spent pursuing my liberal arts degree. I may not be a whiz at accounting, and the intricacies of marketing still elude me, but the perspectives I acquired as a liberal arts major still allowed me to compete and succeed effectively in business and government for forty years.
A liberal arts education teaches and reinforces the value of diversity of thought. That one factor alone makes it relevant.