A foundation for success

A liberal arts education provides students with skills that will be transferable to a variety of occupations and situations.

“With technology and the rapid pace of
our society, we are inundated with information constantly. A liberal arts education helps people discern information
and apply critical thinking. It trains you
to follow an idea through, explore where
it leads and make a decision,” says
Michael McAnear, Ph.D., dean of the
National University College of Letters
and Sciences, San Diego.

“A liberal arts education offers a broader general education that develops a person in many different ways. The result is
a well-rounded person who is able to
clearly communicate his or her ideas.”

McAnear emphasizes the importance
of that ability to communicate, especially in the business world. “There is so
much rapid change in our society.
People who can communicate ideas creatively and effectively have a competitive advantage. Take Steve Jobs’ recent
unveiling of the iPhone, for example. His
presentation was so creative and so
strong that he was able to generate
enthusiasm far beyond what may have
been expected otherwise.”

Smart Business spoke with McAnear
about how a liberal arts education can
lead to a successful career in business.

What is the end product of a liberal arts
education?

In a nutshell, it is an understanding and
appreciation of the human condition and
the natural world viewed from multiple
perspectives — and the ability to communicate this understanding.

Can you elaborate?

Liberal arts include disciplines in the
hard sciences such as biology and mathematics, as well as in the soft sciences such
as sociology and history. Included are
areas such as literature, philosophy and
language studies. Though the student gets
broad exposure to these and others in general education classes before majoring
in a distinct discipline, all of these areas
promote a spirit of inquiry and therefore
habits of life-long learning.

What are the habits of a lifelong learner?

A lifelong learner approaches the
world with a sense of wonder and
delights at the richness of the human
experience and our place in the world.
The individual has learned to ask questions and weigh opinions — to test
assumptions and apply reasoning to
assertions made in favor of one viewpoint or another. And revelation and discovery leads to the next and so on.

There is no end to the quest for knowledge; the lifelong learner understands
this and has developed confidence to
take presented information and comprehend, analyze, evaluate and use (or not
use) the information. That ability and
confidence is certainly an asset in the
business world where decisions make or
break an enterprise.

What else about the liberal arts education
prepares a businessperson for success?

Well, for our democracy to work — and the economic ‘engine’ makes
democracy possible — we need people
who are broadly educated. Government
policy decisions that will affect all of us
cannot be left only to policymakers. For
instance, important issues in science —
biotechnology, climate change, population growth and technological advances
— need to be evaluated from multiple
perspectives of the citizenry and consensus drawn.

The liberal arts graduate has learned to
test assumptions and weigh critically the
arguments of all sides. It’s not so much
that the person knows this or that about
the subject, but knows instead how to
approach the topic. He or she has
learned to construct arguments and
counter arguments. To my mind, a successful businessperson is also an
engaged, informed citizen.

How does a liberal arts education enhance
a person’s ability to communicate?

Clear communication flows from clear
understanding, and the liberal arts education exposes students to issues at the
heart of our culture. Issues are presented, evaluated and argued in the classroom with students who may be of an
entirely different background and opinion than you.

Multiculturalism, gender issues, racism,
war, globalization, the environment: people have strong opinions about these
issues, and the liberal arts graduate
learns to listen, not necessarily to agree,
but to hear with an open mind. Without
question, this skill will help the businessperson.

But listening is only part of what it
takes to be successful. The liberal arts
curriculum emphasizes clear communication, especially in writing. The person
who can get ideas across clearly and persuasively will have an advantage in the
world of business.

MICHAEL MCANEAR, Ph.D., is dean of the National University
College of Letters and Sciences, San Diego. Reach him at
[email protected].