A foundation for success Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

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 mmcanear@nu.edu.