In a recent year (2013), more business bachelor’s degrees (360,000) were earned than in any other field, followed by the health professions (181,000).  Both are essentially vocational education.

In 1980, 62.5% of college freshmen said “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was a very important personal goal of their education.  62.5% also listed “being very well off financially.”

By 2014, the “meaning of life” seekers were down to 44.6%, while the “money seekers” were up to 82.4%, a huge shift.

Higher education is in turmoil today.  Some claim too many go to college needlessly, while others imply everyone should go to college.  Some propose that education focus more on usable skills that may lead to higher lifetime incomes.  Too few argue for the role of a liberal, or liberal arts, education.

In this conversation and controversy, it is easy for the value of a broad-based, liberal education to get lost, to become invisible.  Such an education may not point the student toward a profitable career.   It might not be for everyone, but I believe that most great leaders and innovators have had liberal educations.

Getting a liberal arts degree is not required.  We are all ultimately self-educated, no matter how many degrees and certificates we have.  I think there is no education formula that works for every person, that we need diversity of options, so that students can choose the best path for themselves.  In addition to the classroom, we learn on the job or through reading, travel, observation, conversations, and other forms of “study.” 

A close look at the lives of Microsoft’s Gates, Apple’s Jobs, and Whole Foods’ Mackey tells us they all are or were very broadly educated.  All are or were lifelong learners.  But none of those three earned a bachelor’s degree.  There are many others like them.

However, college is the best time to get such a broad education.  Nowhere else in life does one have such access to scholars and texts in diverse fields of knowledge, the time and incentive to study, and the acquaintance of people studying many different fields.

At the same time, I have also met quite a few people with PhD’s who are so poorly educated that they cannot maintain a dinner conversation outside their limited field.

It is this narrowness, encouraged by our academic system, broken into ever-narrower silos, which concerns me.

Leaders must have a broad perspective on their world.  They need to deeply understand their context.  They need peripheral vision as well as looking straight ahead.  Our society will be stronger if more citizens have the power to see things in a broader light.

There are at least three reasons I believe in the power of liberal education:

  • Access to diverse thinking tools.
  • Geometrically enhanced innovation capability.
  • Holistic thinking rather than mechanistic thinking.

Diverse thinking tools

Business education in America is focused on marketing, accounting, finance, information management, and so on.  These are all tools that we business people use all the time, and are required for success.  But they are only tools, and often only effectively learned on the job.  But leadership and management – of any organization – are really social sciences: sociology, psychology, even anthropology.  Hiring, firing, evaluating, motivating, and selecting others are critical jobs of any leader.  Few things are more important than the ability to clearly and powerfully communicate – whether in writing or speaking.  These social aspects often get short shrift in formal business education, which is frequently taught by those with limited experience in the real world of business.

(The “brains behind Warren Buffett” – Charlie Munger – espouses similar ideals in his great book Poor Charlie’s Almanack.)

Our booming engineering schools also seem limited.  Some of the worst-educated people I have met are engineers (not all of them!).  They may know their narrow field of study well, but too often they do not understand the societal context in which they operate, or how to deal with other people.

The ultimate power of a great university is its breadth.  Economists, geographers, historians, sociologists, psychologists, biologists, physicists, linguists, and musicologists each bring a different way of seeing to the problems and ideas they deal with.  These diverse approaches are key to understanding people, their behaviors, their motivations, and their interactions.

Without such breadth, to a hammer, every challenge looks like a nail; to a dentist, a cavity; to an accountant, an entry in a ledger.

Leaders need all the thinking tools they can use, and the best leaders use lots of them.  At best, college can teach us how to think and how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  How to integrate the array of thinking approaches available to all of us.

Geometric Innovation

While there are as many routes to innovation as there are people, the single most important source of new ideas is the combination of two things everyone already sees but no one has put together.  This is a key concept in the outstanding bookThe Innovator’s DNA, but this simple idea is not new:

“Creativity is connecting things” – Steve Jobs

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” – Albert Einstein

But here’s the kicker – as pointed out in this little book, the more subjects you are interested in, the more combinations you can make.  In fact, the number of possible combinations goes up geometrically with the number of subjects you know something about.  If you are interested in 9 subjects instead of 3, your odds of a breakthrough are many, many times as great – not just three times as many!

A broad education, whether achieved on your own or in the classroom, is key.  There is a real connection between my 300+ business ideas and my 57,000 book personal reference library, although you don’t have to be as obsessed with learning as I am.

Holistic Thinking rather than Mechanistic Thinking

As I have attempted to better understand the people and the world around me, it strikes me that many times we choose between two “worldviews” – I will tentatively call them the mechanistic and the holistic.

I grew up on a General Motors factory town, Anderson, Indiana, so my love of cars started very early.  Later in life, I met people who thought that cars were only about transportation.  The only value a car had was to get you to and from where you were going, and you only needed to spend enough money to assure reliable transportation.

This is just one way of viewing cars.  And very foreign to me, most of my friends, and certainly people in the automotive industries.  Cars represent many things beyond basic transportation, including freedom, power, status, speed, color, beauty, the thrill of driving, exploring backroads, and access to the world.

None of this is to say that reliable transportation is not the core value.  If a car does not work, it is not a good car, no matter what other values we might attach to it.  But a broader view of the automobile and its place in our society yields a better understanding of how cars and people relate.  A quick look at how much Americans spend on new cars indicates that many strive for much more than simple transportation when we make this, one of the biggest purchase decisions of our lifetimes.

Since my youth, I have also had many conversations about food, exercise, and human health.  But many of the people I talk to seem to think the only value in food is nourishment, that the only reason to eat is to provide nutrients and calories, and that diet and exercise completely define our health status.  Again, I don’t deny the importance of those factors.

But for most people, food carries much broader importance.  How food affects our bodies includes who we eat with, memories of past meals, the setting of the meal, the color and texture of the food, and many other aspects.  Might it be possible that old fashioned Mac and Cheese is not good for my diet, but it is good for my head because of prior associations, and thus results in a net gain for my well-being?

We humans are complex characters, and our psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, geography, and even economics all play a role in our “success” (however you define it) and well-being.

Limiting our thinking to a strictly scientifically-demonstrable, quantifiable, and mechanistic understanding of our lives and society cuts short our total understanding.

I see this nowhere more than in business.  Over the last 50 years, our universities have increasingly taught an approach to business that is mathematical, formulaic, and algorithmic.  Put the right inputs in the spreadsheet model – or management technique – and out pop the “easy” answers.  53 years of studying organizations indicate to me that this is an extremely inadequate view of the way the world works.

With some great exceptions, many of today’s teachers have little “real world” experience.   Perhaps worse, academia has been overrun by a mathematical approach to life and its challenges.  My former Economics teacher Deirdre McCloskey has co-authored a book about the damage done to society by this highly statistical (and often flawed) thinking.

In today’s age of information and data, it is easy to think that once the Internet is indexed (Google) and the algorithms are in place, we have all the answers.  But without a “human interface,” without knowing how people access and use information, we won’t achieve the knowledge and perhaps the wisdom that we seek.

I was blessed to have had three economics teachers who later won Nobel Prizes.  One of the distinguishing factors in their teachings was their emphasis on humans.  Of course these professors were versed in math, and sometimes used highly quantitative tools, as I also do.  But their analysis of issues and policies always started and ended with a relatively comprehensive understanding of humans, how they think and behave, their goals and dreams, and how they participate in the economy.  The math and specialized techniques were only tools, nothing more.

Likewise, in understanding our business society – or the non-profit world – we need to understand that accounting, marketing, information management, security, investments, and most of the other subjects taught are only tools.  Without a context of sociology, psychology, and the other social sciences, as well as the sciences, arts, and humanities, these tools will never serve us well.  Holistic thinking integrates everything we know.

Steve Jobs’ exceptionalism did not come from a PhD in Computer Science.  It came from experiences like sitting in on a calligraphy class out of curiosity.

An integrated, holistic understanding of our lives will enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.

In considering your own education or that of your loved ones, especially our youth, I urge you to give a fair chance to the idea of the liberal education.  There is always time later in life, through work experience or graduate vocational education, to learn the specific skills required in work and life.  But too often today we create (in every walk of life) “carpenters and plumbers” when we need more architects and designers.

Please let me and our other readers know what you think of these ideas by commenting here on LinkedIn.

Here are a few other books I would recommend for thinking more broadly:

Thinking with Concepts, by John Wilson.

Six Thinking Hats, by the brilliant Edward De Bono.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a typical example of how Peter Drucker drew on many fields.

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, by Michael J. Gelb, a real life-changer.

And maybe the best of all, A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink – an easy read with huge ideas.

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