Liberal Education Opens Future's Doors
The next generation of business leaders won't be the narrowly trained
specialists but men and women who have learned how to learn. "The art of
prophecy," Mark Twain declared, "is very difficult, especially with
respect to the future."
He was right. More often than not,
prognosticators get it wrong -- especially those who try to forecast
business trends. For example, in 1929, just before the stock market
crash, Irving Fisher, a prominent economics professor at Yale, announced
that "stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."
To be sure, predicting the future is a slippery enterprise.
But the editors of "Business Week" make an admirable attempt in a
recent cover story titled "The 21st Century Corporation." Drawing upon
the insights of dozens of chief executives, venture capitalists,
academics, consultants and futurists, "Business Week" paints an
intriguing picture of the post-industrial, information-driven,
The cover story predicts that the most
effective leaders of this new perpetual-motion economy will not be
technical experts but bold generalists comfortable in the face of
uncertainty. They must be able to distill new ideas and make new
connections from torrents of information -- and do so quickly. Such
chief executives will be nimble learners and facile adapters who embrace
change and harness its energies.
All of these qualities,
"Business Week" says, are attributes of a broadly based liberal arts
education. "Although disciplines such as marketing and finances will
remain key," the magazine predicts, "there will be more value placed on a
liberal arts education that encourages lateral thinking."
other words, the new economy needs leaders who have developed a capacity
for thinking across disciplines and beyond specialties. In a
knowledge-based society characterized by rapidly changing markets,
technologies, careers, and relationships, a narrowly focused education
will not provide the breadth or agility needed by entrepreneurs and
A modern liberal arts education encompasses a
wide array of subjects. Such breadth of exposure acquaints students with
all of the major fields and helps them learn to think critically and
creatively. While specialized training may better prepare a person for a
specific job, a liberal arts education helps students hone the
qualities necessary for leadership and innovation: curiosity,
flexibility, experimentation, poise, and communication. It forces young
people to look beyond traditional boundaries for answers, to challenge
embedded assumptions, and embrace new ideas and technologies. Most
important, a liberal arts education fosters a thirst for lifelong
learning that is the most important attribute of tomorrow's chief
The greatest challenge for leaders in this new
century, according to Roger E. Herman, a strategic business futurist and
author of "How to Become an Employer of Choice," will be to keep up, to
constantly learn. In an ever-changing environment, the riches will go
to those who have learned how to learn."
Regardless of their
size, the businesses that thrive in the future will be those that can
best negotiate new alliances and partnerships. The leaders of these
companies will need to be versed in diplomacy and adaptability; they
cannot rely on traditional methods of directing and controlling.
the years ahead we'll need more and more workers who can think,
collaborate, create, solve problems, communicate and lead," says Herman.
"People who specialized ... during their college days are discovering
that there was something missing in their education. They didn't acquire
the knowledge skills, background and insight that a liberal arts
Indeed, from the point of view of corporate
executives, the importance of specialization in higher education is
diminishing. The post-industrial economy requires leaders who possess a
wide range of higher-order thinking skills -- analysis, synthesis,
evaluation and critical judgment -- that have long been the emphasis of a
liberal arts education.
The most successful corporations are
looking for young executives who can think, write and speak clearly,
people with the poise and self-confidence to lead groups, digest data,
appreciate ambiguity and grasp the big picture. As Anne Lee Verville, a
senior executive at IBM recently observed, "the shelf life of a
technical degree is less than five years." To know "how to keep learning
new things has become essential to economic survival."
message from futurists is clear: Young people should pursue diverse
interests and nurture their creativity. They should learn how to play a
musical instrument, how to speak a foreign language, how to relate to
another culture, how to nurture a sense of play and humor and how to
In short, they should expand their horizons
and unleash their curiosity. Above all, they should keep learning.
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, sums it up: "If we can inject
the liberal arts spirit into the very serious realm of business, I think
it will be a worthwhile contribution."