The Case for a Liberal Arts Education

I am sometimes asked – and I don’t know why – what course of study I recommend for college students wishing to become successful in business. My answer usually provokes skepticism if not scorn. I recommend liberal arts.

In the age of the Internet and the new economy, specialized technical knowledge is revered. Most of those who ask my opinion figure I’m going to say something like “computer programming” or “communications engineering.” In fact, I think that type of education is the least likely to put you at the top of your field – either as an entrepreneur or as a corporate climber.

There are several reasons.

First, technical knowledge is temporary. The trendier the technology, the faster it changes. What you learn now will become less true as time goes on. Eventually, it will be obsolete.

Plus, technical majors take a lot of time. The typical engineering student – if he aims to get into a good graduate school – must use up most if not all of his credits on subjects that only a fellow techie would even begin to understand. All that specialization leaves little time for “softer” skills like reading, writing, and thinking. And virtually no time for hanging around and having fun.

But the main reason I advise against a technical major is that technical workers have secondary roles in business. In How to Become CEO, Jeffrey Fox distinguishes between “staff jobs” (which make a business work) and “line jobs” (which make a business profitable). He says that in most companies “most of the people are either in administration or field sales. Administrative people are not bad, or untalented, but they are not on the cutting edge. The company doesn’t depend on them.”

I made this point to FS just the other day. He had the idea that he would “do better” in business if he majored in computer sciences or some such “high-tech” major – even though he didn’t especially like that course of study.

From what I’ve seen in business, I told him, staff people (and I’d include all technical people in this category) are unfairly but often viewed as:

  1. Temporary: You need them only as long as you need technical know-how.
  2. Expensive: Because they fall onto the “expense” side of the P&L, keeping their compensation low seems to make good fiscal sense.
  3. Expendable: When sales slow down, all expenses are trimmed – including salaries for staff employees.

Good line employees, on the other hand, are seen as:

  1. Necessary: They create the sales, and sales are always needed.
  2. Worthwhile: Since most line positions are compensated at least partly on the basis of performance, the usual attitude is “The more we pay you, the more valuable you are.”
  3. Irreplaceable: People who create sales have a secret power that the company does not want to lose to its competition. Again, the more money you make, the more irreplaceable you become.

Now let’s look at the other side. What’s so good about liberal arts?

A liberal arts education teaches you three skills: to think well, to write well, and to speak well. And in the corporate world – and in the entrepreneurial world as well – wealth is created by analyzing problems, figuring out solutions, and selling those solutions. In other words, a liberal arts education is tailor-made to give you the skills you need to succeed in business. And not just to do well. I’m talking about going all the way to the top.

Businesses have one fundamental problem that presents itself endlessly in different disguises: how to sell products/services profitably. There are many, many solutions to this problem. Even in a specific situation on a specific day, there is always more than one. And the person who can regularly come up with solutions – and convince others that his solutions should be implemented – is the person who is going to get the rewards. The money. The power. The prestige.

Yes, you can improve your thinking, writing, and speaking skills while enrolled in a technical curriculum. But it will happen indirectly and additionally. It won’t be what you are mainly concerned with. With a liberal arts education, you ensure that you will spend most of your time learning and practicing the very skills you will use later to get your ideas and solutions sold.

I’m not criticizing technical people. They are very valuable. I’m simply saying that if your goal is to get to the top of any organization, public or private, you need to be a very good thinker, writer, and speaker. And a liberal arts education is designed to help you with that.

I’ve known very successful business leaders that did not have a liberal arts education. The CEO of Agora, a billion-dollar company I consult with, is one. He was educated in accounting and worked his way up to CFO. But he was smart enough to see that he had reached the end of that line. So he gradually moved his way into discussions about marketing and sales and product development. Eventually, he became a very good thinker and speaker on these issues. And when it came time to appoint a new CEO, he was the logical choice.