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!!!!