Why today’s workforce needs liberal arts educated critical thinkers

Critical thinking is a major component of business for innovation, product services, manufacturing processes, business models and more, which all create value for customers.

As a matter of fact, in a survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, nearly all employer respondents said a demonstrated capacity for thinking critically is more important than the undergraduate preparation of a job candidate, says Luis Ma. R. Calingo, Ph.D., president of Woodbury University.

Other skills valued over the degree type are being able to communicate clearly and solve complex problems.

Smart Business spoke with Calingo about the importance of critical thinking in business today, and how a liberal arts education can help develop those skills.


Are there areas where critical thinking may fall short in corporate America?

The most important contribution of critical thinking is innovation in the workplace. It’s a prerequisite.

The second would be improving processes and systems by having people working in cross-functional teams to find better ways to accomplish tasks. For instance, at Woodbury University, we created a cross-functional team to look at the entire student experience. After identifying five distinct processes, we looked for opportunities to streamline those processes. Creating that type of opportunity requires a lot of creative and critical thinking.


How does a liberal arts education help nurture critical thinking skills?

The main function of a liberal arts or humanities education is to prepare students to be citizens of a democratic society. Without people with a liberal arts background, the world is filled with narrow and technically trained workers, not complete citizens who think for themselves.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, baby boomers who were born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 11.3 jobs from age 18 to 46. That suggests to universities and colleges that we are educating students for jobs and careers that do not yet exist. Those jobs and careers will use technologies and solutions that have not yet been invented to solve problems that society has not yet recognized. Students need skills that can be used for many things, rather than one discipline.


What’s your response to: “The only thing a liberal arts degree is good for is working at McDonald’s”?

A book by University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” lays out a good argument for why humanities are central to our society. You need people who criticize tradition and authority, as well as understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements, to have a functioning democratic society.

Liberal arts teaches different aspects of human existence. For instance, philosophy is probably one of the best ways to learn critical thinking skills that help you reason out your choices. And if you study philosophy, where do you eventually go? Maybe you become a lawyer.

As another example, if you study and participate in the creative arts like music and dance, it fosters certain skills like empathy that allow you to imagine the challenges other people face — people unlike ourselves.

Even countries that have traditionally linked higher education to national economic gain, only training people for specific professions, like Singapore and China, are starting to recognize the importance of having more creativity and critical thinking skills in their populations.


News, social media, entertainment, politics, etc., are becoming narrower. How does this factor into the argument that the workforce needs broad skills like the ability to think critically, communicate and solve problems?

With today’s information overload, people are looking for summaries and others to interpret data for them. In fact, some executives buy services that summarize books for people who do not have time to read. It’s like an executive version of CliffsNotes.

Information overload and using summary data is happening throughout society — including with business leaders. This trend just highlights the importance of being able to think critically for yourself.