The Usefulness of the Liberal Arts

There’s an interesting article in today’s Inside Higher Education making the case that while business people sometimes make the case for the usefulness of a liberal arts education in business, humanities professors rarely do. It contrasts the views of management guru Peter Drucker with those of English professor Stanley Fish. Drucker values the usefulness of the liberal arts (and, though the article doesn’t mention it, wrote an essay on management as a liberal art) for life and work, while Fish claims they serve no purpose and do nothing to improve people.

In a way, I can see Fish’s point. The liberal arts are so designated because they are the arts appropriate to free persons, that is, persons who do not have to work for a living and have the leisure to pursue their interests in literature or philosophy. At the very least, it gives those people something to talk about. People with jobs can always talk about their work, but people without jobs need something to occupy their time and have conversations about.

However, things have been different since the Renaissance. Rhetoric and other liberal arts began to flourish anew in the republics of Renaissance Italy because they were useful. Rhetoric is necessary to persuade, and persuasion is an important component of politics and law, as well as business. People were seeking out teachers of rhetoric and other liberal arts because they were strivers who wanted to improve themselves to get ahead, not because they were layabouts who needed to find enjoyable ways to kill time before the advent of television. This model of the liberal arts has just as much relevance today as it did then.

I suspect that the main reason humanities professors don’t play up the usefulness of the liberal arts for business is twofold. First, anything that smells of trade is looked down upon. We all know what shallow money-grubbers business people are. After all, we’ve been shown in numerous novels for the past two hundred years how awful they are, novels all written by people unsuccessful in the business world. Also, humanities professors rarely have much knowledge of what is necessary to succeed in the business world, because they’ve rarely spent much time outside academia. It’s a rare occurrence to find a humanities professor who has spent much time working in the business world in any but the lowest positions for brief times long ago. It’s hard to say if the liberal arts are useful for some profession if you’ve never worked in that profession.

Librarianship sometimes seems like an in-between world. It’s not quite academic in the way that teaching is academic, and parts are much more administrative than most professors would like. Even in non-managerial jobs, there’s a lot of paperwork and administrivia. Whereas I value the academic in academic librarianship, there are also plenty of librarians who thrill at the parallels between libraries and businesses and look to the business literature for inspiration. Regardless, what we do is more like what might be done in a business than what most professors do.

Even with that, it’s hard sometimes to articulate the usefulness of a liberal arts education for some library jobs. Because my job is working with humanities faculty, students, and collections, it’s obvious the knowledge and acclimatization gained through such an education is useful. Rhetoric is probably the most practical, and I get the same sense from non-academic friends. Whether you’re building a case for a budget increase or trying to sell someone a widget, the ability to construct persuasive arguments is important.

I’m less sure about the immediate usefulness of having read a lot of literature or viewed a lot of art, though, because such things seem to be most useful when the literature or art provides a shared context for people and allows them to communicate more effectively because they have something in common. In a discussion with a librarian once, I said the only function of the human appendix was to serve as a memento mori, but the joke lost its point when I had to explain what a memento mori was. Because of the various backgrounds of academic librarians, I’m already careful about making certain cultural allusions in conversation or assuming the shared values a mutual liberal education might provide. Out in the world it’s even harder to make such allusions or count on a shared culture created through education.

Thus it would seem that the skills, and not the content, of a liberal education that are the most valuable for business, which might be another reason it’s harder for academics to make the arguments for the usefulness of the liberal arts. In the humanities the emphasis isn’t so much on skills but on content. It’s not, "Professor X sure is good at putting together a persuasive PowerPoint presentation," but "Professor X is a leading authority on topic Y, and she also knows a lot about topic Z as well." Mastering a subject, or many subjects, is valued for its own sake, and not just because it’s good for sales. Mastering a subject is also a synecdoche for something larger as well. Mastery of a subject is also mastery of the self, of achieving or striving to achieve a kind of perfection, of overcoming the shallowness of popular culture and ignorant opinion and seeking to know and understand.

The article finds it surprising that business people are better at defending the liberal arts to business people than academics are, but this shouldn’t be surprising at all. Without shared values and a shared culture, communication is difficult. For better and worse, the cultures are too far apart to communicate well.

3 thoughts on “The Usefulness of the Liberal Arts

  1. This is tangential to your main point, but I was thinking about librarianship’s in-between nature just this morning, during a discussion with a couple of faculty members on points of mutual interest. I have faculty status too, but my day to day work entails a great deal more administrivia than theirs (although, since one of them’s a dean, maybe not) and I seem to spend more of my time interacting with professional staff than with other faculty. It’s a curious position to be in. It doesn’t seem as though it should make me uncertain of my stance on certain issues, but it does.

  2. I feel it more when I teach. I teach in the falls, and only then am I on the faculty mailing list, for example. But it’s just different. I spend more time with spreadsheets or talking about statistics or sitting around waiting to help people with random questions. Most librarians don’t spend much time thinking about syllabi or grading or teaching, and only those with faculty status spend much time thinking about research agendas or lists of publications.

  3. I don’t think a liberal arts education is useful for business, unless that business is something like the business side of fine arts, publishing, or something “liberal artsy”, in which one might make a case for schmoozing clients better with a shared cultural base.
    Any skill or knowledge set that could be needed in the majority of business work could be integrated easily into a business program, including business writing and speaking. It is certainly not necessary to have studied Cicero or antiquated conceptions of rhetoric to be a good presenter of quarterly reports or sales pitches. I would guess one could have essentially no knowledge of the classical canon or Western (or other) history, literature, art, music, or culture in its broadest sense, nor training in the ways of discussing such matters, and still have a very high probability of doing extremely well in the business world.
    One set of data that corroborate my point is the educational backgrounds of the Fortune 500 CEOs. Though these people may have enculturated themselves through their own autodidacticism, I don’t think many of them have liberal arts backgrounds, and yet they were/are as successful as one can possibly be. For example, Bill Gates (dropped out of a comp. sci degree at Harvard); Warren Buffet (B.S., economics); Larry Ellison (no degree); Steve Jobs (dropped out of the uber-liberal arts Reed College, though did benefit from a calligraphy class there!); Jeffrey Immelt (applied mathematics); Jack Welch (chemical engineering); Jeff Bezos (comp. sci/elec. engineering).
    I see Howard Schultz of Starbucks has a B.A. in “the arts and sciences”, so there may be one!
    (By way of disclosure, I submit all this as a lover of the arts, literature, science, history, and philosophy, with a beloved liberal arts background and a graduate degree in a science).

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