An Enthusiastic Supporter of a Liberal Arts Education

I am often asked about the value of a “liberal arts education” by parents and students of all ages. The most common questions are:
-Is there really a benefit to knowing all of that “stuff”? Is it really relevant in today’s technology-oriented world?
-Will I be able to get a job without any “hard, practical skills”?
-Can I compete in graduate business school without having an undergraduate business degree?

My very strong opinion – I always say “opinion” rather than “answer” (and my students at Kellogg know I don’t do “Q&A”, I do “Q&O” 😉 ) – to these three questions is YES, YES and YES.

Okay, I will admit to a strong bias: I was very fortunate to receive a fantastic liberal arts education at Lawrence University of Wisconsin. I believe the education I received at Lawrence played a significant role in preparing me to become the Chairman and CEO of Baxter International, a $12 billion global health care company, and to assume my current position as a Clinical Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. (I should add that a HUGE benefit of attending Lawrence was meeting Julie when I was a senior and she was a Freshman – we have now been married for almost 35 years!!!! 😉 )

In my teaching and writing, I talk about the four principles on which values-based leadership is founded, balance being one of them. In order to achieve a balance in your perspective and decision-making, it is necessary to appreciate ALL SIDES of an issue – not just the binary or the quantitative, but also the “soft”, qualitative facets. Therefore, the broader your understanding of our multifaceted world — philosophy, religion, world history, psychology, political science, economics, mathematics, arts, sciences, etc. (I don’t want to leave anything out 😉 ) – the better prepared you are to grasp the factors at play in a given situation. A good understanding of all areas of the liberal arts, which includes the humanities, sciences, and the arts, can be incredibly empowering and enable you to look at things holistically to achieve a balanced perspective.

I often relate the story of a bright businessman who was asked who should replace a Japanese executive that was retiring in Tokyo. He suggested that they simply transfer someone from China or Korea. When I told him that we needed to understand the implications of that move, he quickly replied, “What is there to think about? They are all Asian.” Wow! It was clear he had no understanding of the cultural, political, and historical implications of the decision.

I do not mean to imply that someone without a liberal arts background cannot obtain this broad, holistic perspective. However, if you don’t obtain this perspective as part of your formal education, you better find ways of developing it early in your career by reading and studying and networking with as broad a group as possible.

Some argue that liberal arts majors have a disadvantage in their first jobs after graduation because they don’t have “specific, practical skill sets”. However, I believe by having a broad network, aggressively pursuing internships and volunteering for different positions, one can be very well prepared for an exciting career.

Regarding graduate business schools, my opinion is that the most important skills to develop are very liberal arts based: the ability to learn to read critically, express yourself orally and in written form, and relate to and influence others. As I always remind students and executives, leadership has nothing to do with titles and organizational charts, and everything to do with the ability to influence others by your ability to relate to others. And finally, in order to relate to others, you need to be able to know yourself…and once again, a liberal arts education is a great start!!!

Here’s a one minute video of a discussion related to this topic that I had with Lawrence University students last month in Chicago:


Let me know what you think!! Happy New Year!!!!


  • Harry,

    This is an excellent set of points (or opinions). And weighing in with you, also in the spirit of opinions and not answers, from the world of medicine and leadership development, I wanted to add a few supporting points:
    1) We were strongly encouraged as undergrads at Northwestern that if we wanted to be doctors, we get well-rounded. That meant pursue the full meaning of a liberal arts education. The point was we needed to be able to relate. Having a bed-side manner. Now, 25 years later, it is still an important requirement. Having studies Spanish Literature I found it was helpful in many ways. Knowing Spanish was reassuring to many poor patients who were scared enough of being sick, but also having a professor push us to read the dry letters of Cortez and see in them new perspectives of Spain, the new world and Cortez, taught me a great deal about powers, cultures, and of course history!
    2)For those who are “profit and loss” oriented, the liberal arts education allows for an organization to be risk tolerant – by having educations from diverse fields, the employees can understand more of what people do and think, and thus they are more adaptive. Thus the risk goes down and the profits go up. One of the best organizations I worked with, as it relates to your point about Asia and “Asians” was a set of leaders in the HR function at Unilever. They were brilliant at matching the culture, the person and the work role. I also saw this in a neat group of finance officers at Motorola.
    So, bottom line, liberal arts helps us understand the world of people (that’s why they also call it the Humanities) and if you have employees with quirky degrees in philosophy, history or the arts, you have a more risk tolerant organization.


  • Agree totally. Technology only makes the issue worse.

    College professors routinely report students are losing their interpersonal social skills. I am a retired FBI Agent, but still stay in touch with those still active in the Bureau. Even the FBI reports they have otherwise-qualified trainees drop out of class when they realize the job requires dealing with people. They want to just play with data. So, too, with Tweets, etc. It is not face-to-face.

    In the 1950’s a theorist stated “The medium is the message.” He was talking about television, and it did change how we interact.

    A liberal arts education teaches you history, culture, and the value of understanding people unlike yourself.

    I hope we are not fighting a losing battle.


    • Thanks Joe! It is really is difficult to really appreciate life without a good understanding of liberal arts. The more we understand and appreciate each other’s history, culture, religion and perspectives, the better our chance of living in a civilized world. Have a great 2015!!


  • Mr. Kraemer, great blog! Having a liberal arts degree in History and International Studies from Wisconsin-Madison, I love hearing how this will not only NOT be a disadvantage, but can actually be an advantage in the work place! Oftentimes, I hear others (including myself from time to time) say that they hope having a LA degree will not put them too far behind the eight ball. Your article flips this thinking on it’s head! I work on UIC’s campus and heard you’ll be speaking here this spring. I’m excited to hear (and read more) about your thoughts. God bless!


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