Value of a Liberal Arts education
June 25th, 2010
I have been surprised by the number of college students and parents who question the value of a Liberal Arts education. Many who have chosen this path and speak this way undervalue themselves and undermine their own confidence and personal power. Many believe that employers don’t hire liberal arts grads, when in fact many employers prefer them for their communication, interpersonal, creative and analytical thinking skills.
As an MBA myself, I am a fan of business education – but not for everyone. Undergraduate business school is a great choice for some students, not every student. There are many other ways for college students to learn business skills and become attractive to employers without having to choose business as a major. Also, most top business schools accept more students with liberal arts or engineering academic majors than business majors.
A wise friend of mine, Ken Saxon, gave a speech to UCSB freshmen on the value of a Liberal Arts education. I simply had to share it with my readers. It’s an important perspective for any college student who is considering their choice of college or major (as well as for parents). He includes a reference to Steve Jobs moving, personal commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 (a ‘must-see’ video for anyone). I actually think Jobs’ words of wisdom are more powerful and relevant to hear before entering college than on graduation day (when choice of study has yet to be made, and the fact that many students don’t really hear what’s actually being said on graduation day – for a wide variety of reasons).
Ken, thank you for sharing your thoughts!
What Do You Do With a B.A. in History?
Talk by Ken Saxon to UCSB Freshman Seminar on the value of a Liberal Arts education:
“What do you do with a B.A. in English,
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree.
I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.”
That’s a cute song in a funny Broadway show, Avenue Q. But it sends a message that’s quite different from what I’ve experienced in my own life. I went off to college, and unencumbered by personal or parental concerns that I come out with a professional skill, I majored in History.
What did I do with a BA in European History?
- I got myself a job in corporate finance at the largest real estate company in America.
- I attended Stanford Business School.
- I started and built a company that stores business files and records and expanded it up and down the West Coast.
- I sold the business, and got deeply involved with community nonprofit organizations.
- I founded and run a leadership and renewal program for nonprofit executive directors, and
- I became Chairman of the Board of a local foundation working on global development issues, and recently went to Kenya visiting health clinics serving the poorest of the poor.
None of this journey (none of it!) was even a glimmer in my mind’s eye when I was sitting in a lecture hall in my freshman year at college. Life journeys are rarely predictable, and they inevitably have lots of twists and turns. It doesn’t hurt at all to head out in a certain direction –as a matter of fact, clear goals and ambition are a good thing — but to act with high confidence that you will end up where you plan to at the start of college is folly.
So if you buy into my premise about life’s uncertainty, what consequence does this have for how you approach your four or so years at a university like UCSB? Well my talk this evening will explore the benefits of taking a liberal arts approach to college. And if you already feel confident what your professional path will be, I’m going to encourage you to broadly explore a lot of other academic fields during your time here.
In this talk, I’m going to focus on three things:
1) The purpose of a college education, and what the liberal arts is all about,
2) The downside of focusing on college as a pre-professional or technical education experience, and
3) I want to talk about some questions I think are fundamental to your education, and how a liberal arts approach to college can help you get some answers.
First, let’s talk about what college is for. I think our society does many young people a disservice. Kids constantly get the message that if they want to get at what life has to offer, they need to go to college. Supposedly, according to the data, your income will be higher, you’ll be more likely to have a successful marriage, and more likely to live a happy life.
But then tons of young people head off to college – record numbers in the last decade – without really thinking about why, and what they want out of it. That was certainly the case for me. In my family, it was just expected that I go to college. And I went to the best one I got into – Princeton.
So what would I say that the purpose of a college education is? I’d start by saying that it’s about discovering who you are, what you’re passionate about, what’s important to you, and what doesn’t interest you in the slightest. Answering such questions is a life-long journey. But the fact is that this is a unique moment in your life. [READ SLOWLY] Compared to your time here at UCSB, there will likely be no other time in your life when it will be easier to try so many interesting things, to find out what you like and don’t like, and be influenced by so many incredible potential mentors.
To me, college is a time for experimentation and paying attention. I can’t think of any way better to do all of this than by taking a liberal arts approach to college.
According to Wikipedia – and as a liberal arts guy, I love Wikipedia, that giant storehouse of general knowledge – “the term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike a professional, vocational, technical curricula emphasizing specialization.”
So let’s pick that apart. First of all, it makes clear what liberal arts is not:
– professional, vocational, technical curricula emphasizing specialization. I think they’re talking about a couple things here. One is a type of curriculum – like pre-med or engineering – that focuses on specific learning to prepare for a certain kind of career. The other part of this is specialization – a narrow approach to education, as opposed to a broad approach. If you think about it, grad school is 100% specialized or focused in a certain discipline. In college, in contrast, you have a choice as to whether you go narrow or broad.
In terms of what the liberal arts IS, the definition also says a few things. First, it says that the approach imparts general knowledge – once again, broad over narrow. But it says something else that’s really important, that it develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities.
So, what’s that all about? I think they’re talking about things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and creativity. They’re talking about complexity, and the ability to learn and adapt.
There’s no question a liberal arts education is a great place to develop your critical faculties, taking in a lot of information and making informed judgments about complex questions. This is a skill-set that is integral to succeeding in the broader world, and certainly in my world of business and of leadership.
Now I know many of you are hearing other messages that really conflict with the liberal arts approach. The University of California, as you know better than anyone, has gotten ridiculously expensive, and some of you may feel pressure – either personally, or from your parents – to get a good return on that investment by pretty quickly getting a good paying job. And, of course, there are student loans to repay. I also know what the economy is like right now, and that you may be more focused on developing marketable skills than you may have been just a few years ago.
But even if you want to go out and quickly make a good amount of money, I have some cautions about a pre-professional approach to college.
First of all, how can you be sure you know where the better paying fields are going to be in 5 years? From my experience at Stanford Business School, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that the industry that everyone wants to get into one year is headed for a fall the next. All the students in the late 80’s that wanted to get into real estate development. CRASH! The flood of students in the late 90’s that wanted to go into Internet startups. OUCH! How about the house flippers of a few years ago? It all looked like easy money. But that’s how markets work – tons of people and money follow such bullish signals, leading to a glut of that kind of business, leading to a hyper-competitive market, and then a crash. It’s the nature of markets, and it has happened since the beginning of time. So the question here is – even if you wanted to, how could you know the best fields for making money in the future? Even pre-med students today can’t be sure of what the career path of a doctor will look like in the more than a decade it will take until they finish their residency.
Now, let’s say you want to go into business one day, as I ultimately did. What would be the best preparation for that? I can tell you that as a hiring employer, here are things I looked for:
- Initiative and leadership,
- Work ethic,
- Communication skills, and
- Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.
None of those is linked to a specific line of study.
It is true that there are some prospective employers who will be searching for narrow lines of study in their hiring. But many, many do not. When I applied as a senior in college for a newly created finance job at the world’s largest real estate development company based in Dallas, Texas, I don’t know what they thought when they saw I was a European History major from Princeton. But I do know that something in my letter and resume led them to want to interview me, and somehow I was able to stand out from the six finalists they flew down to Dallas. You can try to predict such things, but everyone’s different, and you just never know. I found out later that the hiring manager – a high-level executive in a Texas-based global real estate company – graduated college with a B.A. in English. Go figure.
I also want to ask how can you know what you like at this point in your life? My experience is that people who like what they do, who love what they do, are much more likely to be successful at it, in addition to being happier. And if you’re going to spend a third of your life working, why not like what you do? Seems like a no-brainer to me.
So to pick the bulk of your curriculum now based upon your guess as to what you might want to do in the working world, when you really haven’t tried that many things and don’t likely know what will make you happy later in life, seems foolhardy to me. If it turns out you’re wrong, you may have wasted a big opportunity. Tons of my friends changed their majors, and tons have changed careers. One of my best friends in business school went through med school first, only to discover that he hated it. He didn’t want to quit, so he graduated – and then went to business school. This stuff happens, and it may happen to you.
And so often the best things that happen to you, the things that make all the difference, happen by chance, or result from failure – not the result of careful planning.
I want to play something for you. Who here has seen on the Internet the commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005? It’s really quite an extraordinary talk, and I encourage you to watch the whole 15-minute Steve Jobs video sometime. He tells three stories of his life, and I want to play the first one for you.
“I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?
It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.
And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
I shared this story with you NOT to encourage you to drop out of college – although it shows that that’s not necessarily the end of the world. I mean, I’ve been to one of Steve Jobs houses, and I can assure you he’s no longer eating at the Hare Krishna temple. No, I shared this story with you because it embodies an important point – that we can’t always understand or explain the practical purpose of our choices to others as we go along. All we can do is listen to our hearts, follow our instincts and make the best judgments we can. It’s all part of the experience of getting to know ourselves.
And that leads us back to some of what I suggested were the important life questions to make some progress answering while you’re in college?
- Who am I?
- What am I passionate about?
- What’s important to me?
- What doesn’t interest me at all?
For me, embracing a liberal arts education was a great way to find some answers.
As part of putting this talk together, I did something I haven’t done in decades – I pulled out my college transcript. It turns out I took courses in 16 different academic departments at Princeton. Clearly, I took the liberal arts seriously!
So let me share a few examples of how these experiences in the liberal arts helped me learn about myself.
From studying philosophy, I learned that abstract theories were intellectually interesting to me, but not so satisfying. Turns out, I’m a doer, an entrepreneur. I had the same experience with mathematics. Though I was good at it, once the classes got too deep into the abstract realm and I couldn’t figure out the real world application, I lost interest.
From working week after week with a pigeon in a Psychology lab, I learned about Behaviorism, where our habits and behaviors came from and how they can be molded. It turns out that I love figuring out people, how they think and make decisions, and how to motivate them and bring out their best. My studies of Psychology and the brain have helped me be a better employer, a better negotiator, and a better parent – and they’ve helped me better understand my self.
From studying history, I learned that every struggle my society and I are going through is not new, that I am part of a story much larger than myself, and I learned humility about my role in that story. Interestingly to me, when I lost my bearings when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, it was from history that I regained my sense of perspective – reading about how other societies survived much greater horrors over the centuries. It helped get me out of my own grief, and reminded me of the power of human resilience.
By writing a senior thesis and doing historical research leafing through primary source material in national archives in London and in Washington, I learned about how hard it is to understand the “truth” when relying on secondhand sources, like books and newspapers (and now on the Internet), where everything is filtered through other people’s perspectives and biases. I also learned I was capable of original research, and of finding my own voice. And just like the marathons I’ve run, writing a 130 page thesis built endurance and expanded my sense of my own capabilities.
And what of studying music and art and architecture and literature? They helped me learn about what I find beautiful, and how that enhances my life. A couple years ago, I finally got to Barcelona, Spain and see the Gaudi-designed buildings whose pictures amazed me in Architecture class almost 30 years ago. It was a personal thrill.
Each academic subject is a window, a lens, through which to see the world. As you broaden yourself, you will notice things you wouldn’t have noticed — you will appreciate things you would have completely missed – and you will meet and connect with more interesting people, possibly because you may be a more interesting person yourself!
And I don’t know if you all will value this or not, but as you broaden yourself, you will be able to be a much more productive citizen. One of our biggest national problems is that we have become more self-focused as a people, and less able and willing to understand and care about others. Taking a liberal arts education – for example, my classes in Politics, East Asian Studies, Religion and Sociology – made me a less provincial and more worldly person. And the more connected you become to the world, the more you know and the more you care.
And by the way, one of the ways your generation is way ahead of mine is how global you are. Many times more of you will study abroad than my peers did in college. Were I in your seat right now, I would definitely study abroad, and I think it’s one of the most encouraging indicators in our country that so many more American students do so today.
One more suggestion – take classes from the best teachers you can find, no matter what they teach. My experience is that they are the classes you will remember. Every college has iconic professors who know who they are, why they are teaching, and who love to open young minds. At Princeton, if you ask me the classes that most impacted how I see the world, they were not in my major. One of them was a Civil Engineering class. Why did I, a History major with no professional interest in science and engineering, take a Civil Engineering class? Because fellow students I respected told me to. They said David Billington was an incredible teacher. Billington loved how structures like buildings and bridges, when designed well, could come to symbolize a place and its people. His course “Structures and the Urban Environment” filled a 400 person lecture hall each spring. One of our homework assignments was to walk across his favorite built American structure – the Brooklyn Bridge – and write about our experience of it. Billington had a big impact on how I see my surroundings. Now I don’t know who they are, but I know there are teachers like this at UCSB. Find them and spend time with them. They are the professors you will remember, and who will impact how you view yourself and the world.
Personally, I happen to be someone who loves to learn, so for me getting exposed by excellent teachers to varied subjects was a lot of fun. One last encouragement for each of you, no matter what your field of study, is to go through the course offerings and take something off the wall that just sounds fun to you – not because it’s easy, not because you think it might get you a job, but just because it piques your interest. This is the time to do it. You are very privileged to be here at UCSB, and you have a unique opportunity.
Think forward. In 15 or 20 years, many of you will be buried in responsibilities – work, family. You may have a desire to expand yourself, to be a more stimulated and interesting person, to expose yourself to the new. At that point in your life, it’s not impossible, but it’s really hard.
Here, it’s easy. It’s right at your fingertips. Don’t take it for granted. This opportunity will be gone before you know it.
Good wishes to each of you on your journey.