Democracy Cannot Survive Without the Liberal Arts and Humanities

Ray Williams
26 min readMar 22, 2024

A Liberal arts education is in a life-and-death struggle amidst pressure from politicians, business leaders and educational administrators to diminish or eliminate their presence in our post-secondary institutions and replace them with a targeted educational system emphasizing technological and practical skills. Yet, ironically, the importance and utility of a liberal education have never been greater.

Why A Liberal Education and the Humanities Are So Important

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a liberal education is “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) and in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop social responsibility, strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

The value and importance of the humanities go back to our historical past, to the worlds of Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Chinese and Indian philosophers, when the various aspects of human society and culture, including fundamental questions of our existence were studied, and included philosophy, religion, languages, music, literature, history and visual, tactile and performing arts.

The focus of the humanities has been integrated into the concept and practices of citizenship, which in Western society has multiple origins, including English common law, the civil code of France, the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. The focus of these includes the various freedoms guaranteed to citizens, with an expectation they will practice them, including freedoms of conscience, religion, thoughts, beliefs, free speech, freedom of the press, peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

Liberal arts education is typically broad-based and exposes students to science, mathematics, social sciences, and humanities. This broad knowledge of the wider world will prepare us to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. A liberal arts education will also help us develop a strong sense of social responsibility as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving abilities, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) did an online survey of employers and found that 93 percent of them agree that candidates’ demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major. Four out of five employers also agreed that all students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

In 2010, Steve Jobs famously mused that for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said, “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

The humanities and the value of liberal education are dying in American higher education and society. This trend will have a severe destructive impact on democracy and the role of the citizen, encourage the growth of corporate power, and facilitate the movement toward authoritarianism and fascism. This change also reflects society becoming more “technocratic,” in which the dominant role is people with specialized technical skills, particularly engineers.

The war on the liberal arts is also born from the same desire of right-wing America, which has produced voter ID laws and initiated anti-democratic laws. The goal of a liberal arts education was never primarily to provide economic benefits for the recipients; it was to produce an educated citizenry.

Rosanna Warren, the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago, argues “Most people need and want the arts in their lives. Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for or why.”

The Decline of Humanities Students and Increase in STEM Students

According to Rosario Cuoto Costa in her article in the journal Nature, “Over the past four decades, the humanities have been subject to a progressive devaluation within the academic world, with early instances of this phenomenon tracing back to the USA and the UK. It is worth mentioning that this discrimination against humanities degrees is indirect in nature, as it is mostly the result of the systematic promotion of other fields, particularly, for instance, business management.”

While English, social science, and history have lost 26,000 majors over the past ten years, computer science, engineering, and business majors have increased by over 140,000. Health professions, biological sciences, and psychology have increased by almost 200,000. Technical education is supplanting the humanities and the arts. Universities are both listening to that shift and creating it. Overall, there has been a 17% decline in humanities majors. In some Universities and Colleges, entire humanities departments and programs are being eliminated.

2021 was the ninth straight year, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, that the number of students graduating with a major in the humanities has fallen. According to federal data, the number of English majors dropped by a third from 2011 to 2021, and students majoring in religion, area studies and history fell even more. According to a report from the MLA in 2019, colleges cut almost 700 language programs in three years.

The number of students majoring in liberal arts has fallen precipitously, with data from the National Center for Education Statistics showing that the number of graduates in the humanities declined by 29.6% from 2012 to 2020. This decline has worsened over the years. Notre Dame has seen 50% fewer graduates in the humanities over the same period, while other schools have made headlines recently for cutting liberal arts majors and minors, including Marymount University and St. John’s University. The shuttering of liberal arts programs has even led to some Catholic colleges and universities ending theology programs.

Academic fields such as anthropology, sociology and philosophy are also shrinking. However, nursing, criminology, and STEM fields are growing. The number of computer science and engineering majors has exploded.

Numerous reports indicate a downward trend in the availability of liberal arts programs at public colleges across various regions in the United States, course reductions and removals and even the closing of entire departments in areas such as English, history, philosophy, sociology, political science, art, and other disciplines.

Private institutions, especially smaller and less competitive colleges, face comparable reductions. McDaniel College has paused five majors and two minors, while Lasell University recently declared its intention to eliminate five liberal arts majors, including English and history. The College of Saint Rose plans to cut 16 majors and six master’s degrees in liberal arts fields. Similarly, Marymount University in Northern Virginia, a Catholic university, is phasing out majors in history and English. St. Mary’s University of Minnesota has announced cuts encompassing Art, English, History, Human Services, Music, Spanish, Theatre, and Theology.

Humanities and social science fields without a clear pre-professional connection — disciplines classifiable as “qualitative academia” — have fallen out of favor worldwide. Between 2015 and 2018, the share of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees awarded in humanities fields fell 5%, 11%, and 9%, respectively, on average throughout the OECD, with drops of varying proportions detected in 24 of the 36 OECD countries. In the US, the proportion of undergraduate students studying the humanities tumbled approximately 30% between 2005 and 2020.

A report at the 2017, World Humanities Conference stated, ““The humanities were at the heart of both public debate and the political arena until the Second World War. In recent years their part was fading and they have been marginalized. It is crucial to stop their marginalization, restore them and impose their presence in the public sphere as well as in science policies.”

Colin Crouch, Cambridge University Professor and author of The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life, “financial expertise has become the privileged form of knowledge, trumping other kinds, because it is embedded in the operation of institutions that ensure profit maximization. But, this dominance of financial knowledge can become self-destructive, destroying other forms of knowledge on which its future depends.”

What We Lose in the Decline

With the current trend toward technical education, students graduating from this future university will work within the parameters of the “known” and scientific data. They will not pause to consider what Plato or Lao Tzu might have made of a complex societal problem or understand its echoes in Shakespeare or Tolstoy’s literature. Uninformed by anthropology or Goya’s artistic work, they will not know what to make of war. Is it just? Is it moral? Will discussions about war degenerate into political considerations and weapons analyses?

Seen from a comprehensive historical perspective, the shrinking of the arts and the humanities is part of the effort by dominant interests to train a populace to adhere to a narrow and unquestioned set of values. Numbers and efficiency, not a sense of social good, count in this sort of university. Students are trained to supply answers to practical problems, not raise questions about what choices are ethical. Nowhere is this more visible than the current crises facing us in Gaza and Ukraine or global issues such as climate change.

The higher education landscape is subtly shifting, with many of these changes going largely unnoticed. A notable trend is the narrowing of educational content, where universities are increasingly focusing on delivering specific answers instead of promoting a culture of inquiry and exploration. This trend is further exacerbated by the influence of major corporate and individual donors, who often expect their perspectives to be reflected in the curriculum. Such adjustments in academic priorities, budgeting, and course offerings set the stage for a future in education where critical thinking and challenging established norms are increasingly rare.

While studying literary giants like Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson might not directly improve one’s engineering or coding skills, immersing oneself in their works — and those of other important cultural and historical figures — is vital for cultivating a rich understanding of humanity and enhancing critical thinking skills. Regrettably, familiarity with these cultural icons, along with an understanding of key historical events such as the Vietnam War, the Civil War, and the American Revolution, is waning. This decline in historical and cultural awareness poses the risk of breeding a society that is less equipped to scrutinize or challenge the motivations and actions of those in authority.

Lacking a solid grounding in history, sociology, and the arts, future generations might become more susceptible to conformity and less likely to question the ruling class and their ideologies. The challenge is to identify who will rise to reflect on and contest the core of our identity and our direction.

The environmental catastrophes and social upheavals that have characterized the recent decade highlight that the prioritization of specific fields of knowledge should concern not just the academic world but all of society. Disregarding particular types of knowledge could lead to a broader dismissal of any understanding that does not align with the prevailing interests, which may not prioritize the greater good. Such a scenario is akin to opening Pandora’s box, inviting unforeseen consequences.

Around the world, the decline in humanities and social sciences studies significantly surpasses the move towards a STEM-driven economy, regardless of the reasons being authoritarianism, societal views, or educational content. Even individuals who pursue STEM education often end up working in non-STEM fields.

This trend towards STEM might be better understood as a departure from qualitative studies, driven by national factors that seem to steer education in a similar direction across democratic and authoritarian regimes. This shift poses a serious threat to the future of qualitative academic disciplines. Challenges include enduring biases towards specific fields of study, competition in STEM advancements, particularly between the US and China, and a self-reinforcing cycle where the economy shifts faster towards STEM as perceptions align with reality. This situation may lead to public policies emphasizing STEM education, endangering qualitative fields of study.

At this critical juncture, the choices of young people are crucial: will they resist and show a preference for a liberal arts education, or will they embrace a new educational paradigm that elevates STEM above all? In some cases, the voice of the students is already clear. For example, widespread educational protests in Brazil and demonstrations for academic freedom by Hungarian university students highlight their stance. Despite clear expressions of discontent in less democratic regions, students in America and Europe continue to move away from qualitative studies, with little indication of a change in trend. If faced with the decline of these disciplines, as seen in Brazil and Hungary, would they acknowledge the importance of the knowledge and traditions at risk? It might take an authoritarian revival to discover the answer.

The Spread of Anti-Intellectualism

Liberal arts education programs are under duress in higher education, in an atmosphere of increasing anti-intellectualism, where uninformed opinions based on little facts and even less study of our history and culture is daily being spouted by political and business leaders.

The science fiction film Idiocracy (2005) portrays the U.S. as an incredibly dumbed-down society 500 years in the future, in which low culture and Philistinism were unintentionally achieved by eroding language and education coupled with dysgenics, where people of lower intelligence reproduced faster than the people of higher intelligence. Similar concepts appeared in earlier works, notably the science fiction short story The Marching Morons(1951) by Cyril M. Kornbluth, which also features a modern-day protagonist in a future dominated by low-intelligence persons. Moreover, the novel Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley discussed how a utopian society was deliberately dumbed down to maintain political stability and social order by eliminating complex concepts unnecessary for society to function.

According to a recent 2017 Pew Survey, 58% of American Republicans stated that they believe universities and colleges harm the country — a 21% increase since just 2015. This concurrent growing mistrust of education goes hand in hand with mistrust of experts, as universities are assumed to be staffed with expert professors and are seen as the site where experts are created through education. However, changes in education over the last generation have led many to question whether universities are positive, whether they create experts, and whether the experts at universities can be trusted.

Another major change in post-secondary education is a general move toward a more customer-oriented perspective on the purpose of college. While the purpose of a college education — to prepare oneself for the career world, while expanding one’s mind through learning — has not changed at its core, how that purpose is packaged and sold to students and their families has changed.

Universities care more about selling the college experience than supporting quality academic study and research. Both liberal and conservative professors and student groups volley for attention while universities struggle with brand.

Writer Tom Nichols describes this phenomenon as the “customer is always right” syndrome: Students, believing they are purchasing a degree rather than paying for the privilege of learning from experts, no longer view professors as authorities. Students are more interested in grades and final results than on the process of learning or gaining knowledge so that those grades can translate into the best jobs in the marketplace.

In American schools, the culture exalts the athlete and good-looking cheerleader. Well-educated and intellectual students are commonly referred to in public schools and the media as “nerds,” “dweebs,” “dorks,” and “geeks.” They are relentlessly harassed and even assaulted by the more popular “jocks” for openly displaying any intellect. These anti-intellectual attitudes are not reflected in students in most European or Asian countries, whose educational levels have now equalled and will surpass that of the U.S. And most TV shows or movies, such as The Big Bang Theory, depict intellectuals as being geeks, if not effeminate.

Anti-intellectualism is hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals and intellectualism commonly expressed as deprecating education and philosophy and dismissing art, literature and science as impractical and even contemptible human pursuits. Anti-intellectuals present themselves and are perceived as champions of common folk — populists against political and academic elitism — and tend to see educated people as a status class and feel that intellectuals dominate political discourse and control higher education. Totalitarian governments manipulate and apply anti-intellectualism to repress political dissent.

What Do Employers Want in Workers?

Many of us operate under the assumption that employers and the workplace now need technically educated and skilled workers more than liberally educated ones. Yet surveys and studies have shown this needs to be corrected.

In 2018, historian Benjamin Schmidt says that the perception that the humanities are a less significant preparation for careers — for life — seems pervasive among undergraduates and their parents despite employers continuing to call for the kind of skills that the humanities provide.

Students, graduates and researchers in the humanities share their opinion on the main advantages, and their takes coincide with the way humanities courses are promoted on the universities’ websites that were taken into account in the analysis of one research study. As it would turn out, these advantages match the profile of the ideal employee as outlined by a group of employers as a condition to achieve success at their companies, according to a separate study that is unrelated to the humanities in particular

Business and military leaders complain that students are ill-educated for the work that needs to be done. The Council on Foreign Relations recommends that an education system that values liberal arts produces better soldiers, security analysts, managers, and producers.

Employees with liberal arts training are highly valued by employers. According to a 2013 survey, more than 90% of employers agree that “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important” than an applicant’s college major, and that ethical judgment, integrity, intercultural skills and the ability to continue learning also were key. A few years later, similar surveys showed that employers were looking for workers who were great communicators and possessed “soft” skills such as collaboration.

According to a Forbes report, employers are looking for workers who have these skills:

  • Empathetic listening.
  • Agility, flexibility and adaptability.
  • Communication skills.
  • Emotional intelligence.
  • Social skills.
  • Teamwork skills of collaboration.
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving.

Interestingly, technical skills and knowledge were not listed in the top 10. Many companies, including Google, assume those skills can be taught on the job.

Why the Business World Needs Liberal Arts Graduates

Michael S. Roth, argues that a liberal education matters more than it ever has, in his book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. He says, “Liberal education should enhance abilities to translate across ideas and assumptions, but instead the public is treated to the spectacle of pointy-headed specialists great at one thing but not to be trusted beyond their small subfield. Of course, advanced work in any area requires rigorous work and real technical competence. But we must not confuse being a competent technician with being a scientist who can make discoveries or a teacher who can inspire students by translating complex technical issues into terms relevant to pressing human concerns.” Roth makes an excellent point: “It is especially urgent to advocate effectively for a broadly based pragmatic liberal education when confronted by ignorant authoritarians who reject inquiry in favour of fear-mongering and prejudice. A broad education with a sense of history and cultural possibilities arms citizens against manipulation and allows them to see beyond allegiance to their own.”

In his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria writes that America’s success was built on a liberal arts education — on multidisciplinary study for the sake of learning rather than vocational study for the sake of a set career path. Liberal arts subjects– such as English, philosophy and political science — teach people how to think, write and communicate; those skills remain useful through the many twists and turns of a career in today’s ever-changing digital economy, he argues. And, he says, it is dangerous to overemphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education as separate from or more important than the liberal arts.

David Autor, the MIT economist who has studied the impact of technology and globalization on labor, writes, “Human tasks that have proved most amendable to computerization are those that follow explicit, codifiable procedures where computers now vastly exceed human labor in speed, quality accuracy, and cost efficiency. Tasks that have proved most vexing to automate are those that demand flexibility, judgment, and common sense.” In other words, the kinds of skills learned in a Liberal Arts education.

The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They are necessary and require our support in challenging times and in times of prosperity. And the current education system in the US needs to gain that perspective. So says a report by the National Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dedicated to the free and open pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, a liberal arts education provides a multi-faceted worldview. It enables students to see beyond one perspective, encouraging them to understand others even if they disagree.

It’s fashionable for many business leaders to lampoon liberal arts graduates and exalt those with professional degrees. Yet as Peter Drucker, often acknowledged as the world’s foremost expert on management and leadership, said this belief is misplaced. Drucker drew many insights from literature and social sciences, not economics and business. Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute argues, “The problem is that the broad world of ideas has become largely separated from the world of business.”

In an article in the London Times, entitled “Harvard’s Masters of the Apocalypse,” Philip Broughton, a Harvard Business School graduate and author of What They Teach You At Harvard, says “You can draw up a list of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent history, from Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Lak-shmi Mittal — and there’s not an MBA among them.” Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and majored in psychology while he attended college.

Steve Jobs made a statement that points straight to the value of the liberal arts in the 21st century. “We’re not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the industry,” said Jobs, “It’s the marriage of that plus the humanities or the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple.”

Norman Augustine, former long-time chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, insists that liberal arts deficiencies put the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage. In a 2010 American Management Association Study, less than 50% of the executives polled said their employees had effective communication and innovative thinking skills, and 80% said colleges and universities could better prepare America’s future workforce by placing more emphasis on the humanities.

E. O. Wilson, a world-renowned American biologist contends “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom,” Wilson declares. “The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

“You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s former senior vice president who oversaw the company’s hiring, told the New York Times, “Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”

Tech CEOs are generally keen to hire people trained in the humanities, partly because many of them have similar backgrounds. A third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees. However, for students coming out of liberal arts colleges, it can still be difficult to find work in the tech sector. Georgia Nugent, the former president of Kenyon College and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, says that top executives are not responsible for hiring entry-level staff. Instead, recruiters and HR managers on the hiring front lines often use systems that pick candidates for tech jobs based on key terms like “coding” and “programming,” which many liberal arts graduates will not have on their resumes.

Nugent is concerned about this trend because she thinks that training students for very specific tasks seems short-sighted when technology and business is evolving at such a fast rate. “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task,” she says. “We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”

In 2008, research teams at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executives and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering, who led the teams, found these executives tended to be highly educated, with 92 percent holding bachelor’s degrees and 47 percent holding higher degrees. Yet, only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just 2 percent held degrees in mathematics. The rest had degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, health care, and arts and the humanities.

We learned that although a degree made a big difference in an entrepreneur’s success, the field and the school it was from were not significant factors. Former YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, for instance, majored in history and literature; Slack founder Stewart Butterfield in English; and Airbnb founder Brian Chesky in the fine arts. In China, Alibaba’s chief executive, Jack Ma, has a bachelor’s degree in English.

Wadhwa says: “Creating solutions requires a knowledge of fields such as biology, education, health sciences, and human behavior. Tackling today’s biggest social and technological challenges requires thinking critically about their human context, which humanities graduates are trained to do. An engineering degree is very valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature, and psychology provides a big advantage in design. A history major who has studied the Enlightenment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire gains an insight into the human elements of technology and the importance of its usability. A musician or artist is king in a world where you can 3D-print anything you can imagine. To create the amazing future technology enables, we need our musicians and artists working hand in hand with our engineers. It isn’t one or the other; we need the humanities and engineering.”

What About Bottom-Line Financial Results

There are many cause-and-effect arguments–science and technology graduates get paid more than liberal arts graduates, so the argument goes. Yet, in an article in the Wall Street Journal by Melissa Korn, she cites the research by the American Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), which advocates a broad-based liberal arts education and shows that while liberal arts graduates initially make lower salaries compared to business graduates, in the long term the differences are minimal. An excerpt of the AACU’s report states “The case for Liberal Arts goes beyond purely vocational or economic reasons, they are indispensable to the vitality of democracy and future of global understanding and community.”

History majors often become well-paid lawyers or judges after completing law degrees, a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project has found. Many philosophy majors put their analytical and argumentative skills to work on Wall Street. International

International Relations majors thrive as overseas executives for big corporations, and so on. Using tax records from University of Ottawa graduates, the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) recently found that social sciences and humanities graduates enjoy steady increases in earnings — starting at an average of $40,000 right after graduation and up to $80,000 only 13 years later — similar to the average earnings of math and science graduates.

Burning Glass and Strada Institute for the Future of Work (formerly USA Funds, one of the nation’s largest student loan guarantors), recently published The Permanent Detour — Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads. The report noted that although it’s a popular target of those who insist that a college education should connect to a good job, majors in “Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities” had lower unemployment than Business graduates. According to the report, the major with the fewest underemployed graduates was “Foreign Languages, Literature, and Linguistics.”

We Need To Rescue Liberal Arts Education For Economic Prosperity

The 2008 financial crisis, business corruption and a string of ethical and moral scandals surrounding a number of prominent political and business leaders have led some observers to question the value and focus of vocationally oriented, pragmatic education programs such as business education and, particularly, the MBA. The importance ofnbsp;a Liberal Education is once again gaining some attention.

A New York Times article, “Is It Time To Retrain B-Schools?“ says “Critics of business education have many complaints. Some say the schools have become too scientific, too detached from real-world issues. Others say students are taught to devise hasty solutions to complicated problems. Another group contends that schools give students a limited and distorted view of their role — that they graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value and only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership. Such shortcomings may have left business school graduates inadequately prepared to make the decisions that, taken together, might have helped mitigate the financial crisis, critics say.”

In an article in the London Times, entitled Harvard’s Masters of the Apocalypse, Philip Broughton, a Harvard Business School graduate and author of What They Teach You At Harvard, says, “You can draw up a list of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent history, from Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Lak-shmi Mittal — and there’s not an MBA among them. Yet the MBA industry continues to grow, and business schools provide vital income to academic institutions: 500,000 people worldwide graduate each year with an MBA, and 150,000 of those in the United States create their management class within the global business. From Royal Bank of Scotland to Merrill Lynch, HBOS to Lehman Brothers, the Masters of Disaster have their fingerprints on every recent financial fiasco.”

Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, also argues because students spend so much time developing quick responses to packaged versions of business problems, they do not learn enough about real-world experiences. Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, a historical analysis of business education, shows that, in the 1970s, the idea took hold that a company’s stock price was the primary barometer of success, which changed the schools’ concept of proper management techniques. Instead of being viewed as long-term economic stewards, he says managers came to be seen mainly as the owners’ agents -the shareholders — and responsible for maximizing shareholder wealth. He goes on to say that “we can’t rely on the usual structure of MBA education, which divides the management world into the discrete business functions of marketing, finance, accounting, and so on.”

Warren Bennis and James O’Toole have written how business schools have been on the wrong track for years, claiming that “MBA programs face intense criticism for failing to impart useful skills, failing to prepare leaders, failing to instill norms of ethical behavior.”

For universities, business education is a cash cow. Business schools are less expensive than graduate schools with elaborate labs and research facilities, and alumni tend to be generous with donations. Business education is big business, too. Yet, there have been signs that all is not well in business education. A study of cheating among graduate students, published in 2006 in the Academy of Management Learning & Education, found that 56 percent of all M.B.A. students cheated regularly — more than in any other discipline. The authors attributed that to “perceived peer behavior” — in other words, students believed everyone else was doing it.

Some employers are also questioning the value of an M.B.A. degree. A research project that two Harvard professors released in 2008 found that employers valued graduates’ ability to think through complex business problems, but that something was still lacking. “There is a need to broaden from the analytical focus of M.B.A. programs for more emphasis on skills and a sense of purpose and identity,” said David A. Garvin, a professor of business administration and one of the project’s authors. Indeed, students themselves may welcome an emphasis on character skills. In surveys that the Aspen Institute regularly conducts, M.B.A. candidates say they become less confident during their time in business school that they will be able to resolve ethical difficulties in the workplace.

So What Is The Solution?

The solution to the problem of business school programs in preparing leaders and managers may lie in returning to the concept of a liberal education.

Does a broad, idealistic, liberating education also prepare a person to be valuable to a company? Many business leaders argue that it does. The workplace has changed. Workers no longer stay in one company doing the same job until retirement and most young workers today are not reticent to question authority.

The goal of a liberal arts education was never primarily direct economic benefit for the recipients, it was to produce an educated citizenry.

The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They are necessary and require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. And our current education system in North America is losing that perspective. So says a report by the national commission on the humanities and social sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the very moment when China, Singapore and some European countries are seeking to institute the concept of a broad liberal education, increasingly the U.S. and Canadian higher education institutions are narrowing their focus on scientific, technological and vocational enterprises.

The commission goes on to say “At a time when economic anxiety is driving the public toward a narrow concept of education focused on short-term payoffs…there is a convincing case for the value of the liberal arts education,” to sustain a democracy and educated citizenry. As Charles M. Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering says, “All the scientific and technological skills of which we can conceive will not solve our world problems if we do not build and adapt a broad base of human and cultural understandings.”

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, by Melissa Korn, she cites the research by the American Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) which advocates a broad-based liberal arts education. An excerpt of the AACU’s report states “The case for Liberal Arts goes beyond purely vocational or economic reasons, they are indispensable to the vitality of democracy and future of global understanding and community.”

Norman Augustine, former long-time chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, insists that liberal arts deficiencies put the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage. In a 2010 American Management Association Study, less than 50% of the executives polled said their employees had effective communication and innovative-thinking skills, and 80% said colleges and universities could better prepare America’s future workforce by placing more emphasis on the humanities.

Part of the reasons for the decline of liberal arts in colleges and universities and their focus on professions, technology and sciences has been economic. The rising cost of post-secondary education has made a liberal arts education out of reach for most working-class and middle-class families, and these students are compelled to pursue vocationally oriented educations out of necessity. Second, higher education institutions have partially solved their funding problem by turning more and more to research grants and endowments provided by corporations, which are often driven by self-interest.

Management guru Henry Mintzberg argues that business skills cannot be taught in classroom, saying that a degree in philosophy or history would be more beneficial. William Sullivan from The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and author of his book, Preparing for Business, Learning from Life: Liberal Arts and Undergraduate Business Education, argues that the separation of business courses which focus on narrow technical study and the broader Liberal Arts approach no longer serves business students, and that an integrated program that focuses on engagement in the real world from a practical, personal and moral perspective, is needed. Thomas Friedman, in his best-selling book, The World is Flat, argues that because the world and cultures are so interconnected today, business leaders must gain more knowledge from the Liberal Arts. Arie de Geus, former CEO of Royal Dutch/Shell, in his book, The Living Company, says that his greatest insights came from his study of philosophy and psychology, not business.

The Conference Board of Canada created an essential skills profile for new graduates which mirror a Liberal Arts curriculum. In particular, the ability to see and think in systems, ask powerful inquiries, act and think independently, see the bigger picture and deal effectively with complexity, ambiguity and contradictions are hallmarks of Liberal Arts studies which are essential for business leaders.

The Liberal Arts rarely appear in the normal curriculum of the leading business schools in North America, although some business schools such as the Aspen Institute, draw upon humanities literature. David Garvin, Svikant Divar and Patrick Cullen, authors of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education At The Crossroads, argue that the economic recession has made it clear to business leaders they need to sharpen their thinking skills and obtain broader perspectives, something many business schools don’t provide. With few exceptions, most business schools focus on instruction in separate disciplines such as finance, marketing and strategy, with an emphasis on quantifiable methods and analysis.

Final Thoughts

Higher education institutions are increasingly focusing on specialized majors, reducing the emphasis on a comprehensive core curriculum that includes classical studies, history, and philosophy. This shift has led students and faculty to lose touch with the influential narratives of historical figures who battled for righteous purposes.

The essence of a liberal arts education, stemming from the Latin verb “liber,” meaning “to be free,” seems to be overlooked in the current educational landscape. Such an education fosters freedom of thought and action, ideals every student should aspire to. The epic journey of Odysseus in Homer’s “Odyssey,” his struggles to return home to Penelope after the war, is a powerful reminder that heroism is accessible to all. It suggests that we, too, can strive for and achieve greatness, whether on a grand scale, within our communities, or even within the confines of our homes.

We need to rejuvenate the liberal arts within our academic institutions. By doing so, we can ensure students recognize that true freedom and fulfillment come from a well-rounded education that enriches the mind with diverse subjects and inspiring stories. This approach prepares them for meaningful careers and helps them find a deeply satisfying path in life, much like the heroes and heroines of classical lore.



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others