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HUMAN RESOURCES

Stop Picking on Liberal-Arts Majors

There's a difference between education and vocational training: One may not necessarily lead to optimal employees more than the other.
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Another day, another article about how liberal-arts colleges aren't providing the proper skills for the work force.

This on the heels of President Obama's recent jab, from which he rapidly backpedaled, about the earning power (or lack thereof) of an art history degree.

What's wrong with this picture? Mainly the notion that educations are supposed to lead to earning power or create a caste of eminently employable people. As business owners, you can surely attest that not all employees who studied more career-oriented disciplines have worked out. 

What Liberal Arts Are All About

When I was an English major at Yale in the '90s, I learned one thing: how to get better at reading, interpreting, and explaining the best prose and poetry in the English language. 

Commonly, friends of my parents would ask: "OK, but what can you do with that?"

They yawned when I explained that vocational preparation was not the point. The beautiful, timeless, and almost divine point was that there was no point. The blessing of the liberal arts is the relief and perspective they provide from the relentlessly capitalistic and consumeristic culture we live in. 

In the immortal epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton (through many phrases and symbols) points out, time and again, the perils of a culture that becomes obsessed with the "value" of things. 

It's one of many concepts the blind poet was prescient about. He completely anticipated that, even in a once-precious realm like education, students (and their clingy parents) would eventually become more like consumers, obsessed with getting a quantifiable return on what they were spending.

Now there's no turning back. It seems as if most people believe that the endgame of education is preparedness for the work force, rather than a buffer from the world's relentless emphasis on exchanges of value.   

A Big Ass Difference

Given this backdrop, I was thrilled not long ago to speak to Carey Smith, founder and de facto CEO of Big Ass Fans, or BAF, a $125 million manufacturer of residential, commercial, and industrial fans based in Lexington, Kentucky. Founded in 1999, the company now employs 445 people. Smith still oversees operations, but I call him "de facto" CEO because his actual title is Chief Big Ass. 

Smith explained to me that one of his hiring strategies was employing people who possess two specific personality traits: curiosity and positivity. Don't all companies want those traits? Of course. But what separates BAF from the pack (aside from its rapid growth, as its revenue has doubled in the past three years) is its ability to screen for them.

For example, just because BAF reveres hands-on skills (making, testing, fixing) doesn't mean college time spent studying the classics is irrelevant. Quite the opposite. "Some of our best people are English majors," he says. "A liberal-arts degree is a good thing. You're looking for people [who] are naturally curious, who want to know why. I love engineers; they're great. But with liberal-arts majors, if they're really engaged and they really studied, they're curious."

Think of it this way: It's commonplace for employers to say they crave out-of-the-box thinkers and innovators. What's more out of the box than liberal-arts schooling, which prepares students to challenge the very concepts--value, practicality, return on investment--that so many businesses rely on?

You can bet that if Obama had joked about art history majors at BAF headquarters, Smith wouldn't have laughed.

IMAGE: Alamy
Last updated: Feb 6, 2014




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