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Why a Liberal Arts Education Matters

Using Charles Dickens and George Eliot to study Marissa Mayer and Clayton Christensen.
Why your company needs to hire more liberal arts majors
photo by flickr user RachelH_

During graduation season, it’s fashionable to lampoon liberal arts majors. The insult usually goes something like this: “If you do get that college degree, you might want to consider computer languages over English.”

We’re quoting directly from an article in Quartz, in which authors Tim Fernholz and Christopher Mims offer eight insights from their interview with venture capitalist and tech legend Marc Andreessen.

We’ve heard the argument against English degrees before — sometimes from parents who footed the tuition bill, sometimes from friends who base their every life decision on future net worth, and sometimes from executives who want a team that’s “all business.” Any investment in education, they argue passionately, should have a tangible vocational payoff and we see where they’re coming from — to a point.

Here’s where we differ: hard-nosed career acumen and an English degree are not mutually exclusive. And we’ve got one salient example of how a liberal arts education can lead to just that, not to mention prove incredibly useful for the high-concept thinking required in contemporary business settings. In fact, the greatest management thinker of all time, the late Peter Drucker, drew many of his insights from English literature.

“The problem is that the broad world of ideas has become largely separated from the world of business,” notes Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute, in his article “Management as a Liberal Art” for Bloomberg Businessweek. “. . . I’ve been reminded how much literature can shed light on a subject that lies at the very heart of management: the human condition. ‘I am re-reading each summer — and have for many years — the main novelists,’ Drucker wrote to a friend in 1997. Among them, he said, were Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, and George Eliot. ‘I never read management books,’ Drucker added. ‘All they do is corrupt the style.’”

Drucker didn’t just use these novelists to improve his writing style. He cited their work in his essays to provide historical context to modern business phenomenona.

In “Beyond the Information Revolution” for the Altantic, Drucker wrote: “Indeed, the ‘crisis of the family’ did not begin after the Second World War. It began with the Industrial Revolution — and was, in fact, a stock concern of those who opposed the Industrial Revolution and the factory system. (The best description of the divorce of work and family, and of its effect on both, is probably Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times.)”

We could look at Drucker’s statement on work and family as ancient history. But we see echoes of it in the recent outcry over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s ban on telecommuting. Work and family are still relevant subjects to managers, and here’s Drucker referring us to Dickens for examples.

In the same 1999 essay for the Atlantic, Drucker noted: “The railroad was the truly revolutionary element of the Industrial Revolution, for not only did it create a new economic dimension but also it rapidly changed what I would call the mental geography. For the first time in history, human beings had true mobility. For the first time, the horizons of ordinary people expanded. Contemporaries immediately realized that a fundamental change in mentality had occurred. (A good account of this can be found in what is surely the best portrayal of the Industrial Revolution’s society in transition, George Eliot’s 1871 novel Middlemarch.)”

When Drucker wrote that in 1999, Clayton Christensen’s notion of “disruptive” technology was just a few years old. Today, it’s more relevant than ever: In the blink of an eye, all of us have experienced changes to our “mental geography,” thanks to mobile devices and social media.

So, there you have it. Drucker, the most influential thinker in the history of management science, cited two 19th-century novelists — mandatory reading for English majors — in an article about the information revolution. That’s something to consider before dismissing as impractical the pursuit of a degree in liberal arts.

#talent2013

THE PLUS

Kevin Daum, coauthor of the best-selling book Video Marketing for Dummies, believes companies should be open to hiring liberal arts graduates as managers. “While certainly degrees in science, technology, and health care will make getting a job easier,” he writes in Inc. “I would strongly disagree with Marc Andreessen that English, history, theater, and liberal arts graduates will all be relegated to being shoe salesmen and baristas.” Daum offers nine tips for hiring the Class of 2013’s best and brightest, including making sure candidates possess the “critical skill” of writing.

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