In my position as dean of the Else School of Management at Millsaps College, I am often asked about the relevance of a liberal arts education, particularly to a student of business. Millsaps College is in the business of educating leaders, and a liberal arts education has long been considered “basic training” for the gifted and talented. But does it really make a difference to the young person who aspires to work in the business world? I believe that a liberal arts education is relevant to the student of business, indeed to the entire business community. I am convinced that the study of business, grounded in a liberal arts education and nurtured in the environment of a small college, is the best means for developing tomorrow’s business and community leaders.
It is true that a strong business curriculum gives a student the decision-making tools necessary to deal with problems in a specific context, and a solid understanding of the functional areas of business is critical to success in the work place. However, the world in which we live and work is a constantly changing, mobile, information-oriented environment that demands a broadly focused view. Today’s business leader is not simply an accountant, or a marketing or finance specialist. He or she is also able to harness integrated communication technologies, utilize diversity in the workplace, and master available information in order to identify and solve problems, recognize opportunity and communicate information effectively. A liberal arts orientation gives students the tools necessary to develop these competencies by teaching them to seek and gather knowledge, judge that knowledge and communicate the judgement, and ultimately to create knowledge.
A liberal arts curriculum recognizes that knowledge comes from many sources. We live in one of the most exciting times in terms of advances in science and technology. Might not an understanding of the industrial revolution increase our understanding of the current environment, and some of the problems we might face, opportunities we might take advantage of? Much of the wisdom offered through literature is timeless.
Recently, one of our management professors recommended a book titled “Shakespeare on Management.” Exposure to science, mathematics, philosophy and the arts gives the student a broad context on which to base decisions. This exposure also creates in the student an ability to see the integrated nature of all aspects of business. Over the span of a career, this ability becomes increasingly important to the solution of complicated problems which may not have any one correct answer. An individual charged with decision-making responsibilities must be able to follow those solutions to all of their logical conclusions, be aware of their social and ethical implications, in addition to the impact on the bottom line.
In addition, the small classes and highly interactive environment traditionally associated with the liberal arts college encourages the student to voice his/her opinion, and to offer and defend alternative solutions to a problem — an important skill for a leader, business or otherwise, since good ideas that are never heard or acted upon are useless. This verbal discourse encourages the student to master the topic of discussion and disciplines him to discern relevant from irrelevant information. A student can’t hide from his professor or peers in a small class.
Simply, this environment raises the bar for our students. Higher expectations lead to higher performance in the classroom, which becomes a habit taken out into the work place.
Small classes and real professors, as opposed to teaching assistants, also increase the students’ exposure to higher order application skills. A graduate who enters the work force with an active knowledge of how theory works in practice is one step ahead of the game. These professors diligently work with students to develop and capitalize on special skills a student may possess, while identifying and rectifying weaknesses.
Finally, a liberal arts education is most important to the study of business because business is not only about the bottom line — it is about people creating a community where they live and work. Advances in travel and information technology have made these communities increasingly diverse places. An expanded world view, developed through the study of different cultures as well as the traditional classics, is an important attribute of a liberally educated person. Within a business context, one cannot succeed without being open to the opinions and knowledge offered by others — even when it is different from the way we traditionally perceive things.
Jesse Jackson once said “There is unlimited power in a developed mind and disciplined spirit.” This is the power that a liberally-educated individual takes with them to graduate school, to a new job, to their community. The bottom line is that a liberal arts education teaches its students how to learn, to love learning and the value of continuous life-long learning. It is the basis not for beginning a career, but for beginning a life.
W. Randy Boxx, Ph.D., is dean of the Else School of Management at Millsaps College in Jackson. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.