Many people have this idea that classical education is extremely impractical in this “21st century global economy.” A look at the news suggests governors and Republicans are even and especially susceptible to this hard-headed view. But two recent articles from the Wall Street Journal reinforce the truth that a broad liberal arts education will prepare young people better for business endeavors and cultural leadership than narrowly focused job-skills training. 

First, here’s a post by Robert Plant, a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Business Administration. He says:

[I]t is increasingly important for firms to be led by a polymath. In essence, someone who has great and varied learning over complex bodies of knowledge. This can then be used to solve equally complex tasks within the business. Famous historic polymaths include da Vinci, Galileo, and Francis Bacon; however business leaders such as Gates, Jobs and Bezos also possess this quality.

Todays’ [sic] corporate leadership is too frequently still populated by monomaths, functional experts in single fields; corporate boards are dominated by finance and law monomaths, and worryingly homogenous…Steve Jobs’ broad life experiences and skills included calligraphy, design, Buddhism and of course technology. These combined to not only to make him a polymath but give him “fluid intelligence,” a term applicable to people who can solve unique and novel problems with attractive counterintuitive solutions. This is exemplified by the approach Jobs took to product creation. For him, the designers of the MP3 player were solving the problem of playing MP3 files, a monomath’s solution; while the iPod was a polymath’s catalytic solution that would transform the life style of its user, Apple’s customers.

In other words, broad mental training is an excellent foundation for those who want to be leaders and innovators. It’s probably far better than extremely specific, one-sector-only preparation.

The news article from the Journal is titled, “Why Some MBAs Are Reading Plato.” Here’s an excerpt:

The philosophy department is invading the M.B.A. program—at least at a handful of schools where the legacy of the global financial crisis has sparked efforts to train business students to think beyond the bottom line. Courses like “Why Capitalism?” and “Thinking about Thinking,” and readings by Marx and Kant, give students a break from Excel spreadsheets and push them to ponder business in a broader context, schools say.

The courses also address a common complaint of employers, who say recent graduates are trained to solve single problems but often miss the big picture.

“It’s important to know why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Ingrid Marchal-Gérez, a second-year MBA, told the WSJ. “You can start to understand what idea can have an impact, and how to communicate an idea.” The article also discusses how many current MBA students, while intelligent, have difficulty branching out from their field to conjure and analyze new ideas and become leaders rather than followers.

Image by Richter Frank-Jurgen.

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