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Is There a Place for Liberal Arts in Business?

Math and science education is all the rage these days, but is there still room for liberal arts in the business world? Here's a case for why it's useful.
From left to right: Business leaders Chad Dickerson, Carly Fiorina and Ted Turner all have liberal arts degrees.
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The value of a liberal arts education has long been a source of skepticism in the business community.

However, in a recent interview for PandoMonthly, Chad Dickerson -- the CEO of Etsy who has a BA in English literature from Duke University -- talked about the importance of a liberal arts background.  

When asked to name one thing he believes in that almost no one else does, he responded: “I believe that liberal arts education is as important, maybe more important, than a math or science education.”

The wording of the question is telling – the consensus on the value of a liberal arts education in the business community (and the tech community in particular) tends to align itself with Marc Andreessen’s famous dismissal of “softer majors.”

But in the interview, Dickerson challenged the assumption that more students should be majoring in science or math based fields. “I actually don’t think that is going to solve the problem,” he said. Instead, he stressed the importance of empathy when it comes to successful design: “You need to understand how people think and how people live, and knowing calculus isn’t going to help you with that.”

Dickenson cites his degree in English literature as a key component to his subsequent successful career (he studied Shakespeare in school and once told Sarah Lacy that “you can learn a lot more about power and personal relationships by reading King Lear than by reading TechCrunch”).

He’s not alone. Here are six high-profile business leaders who hold a degree in a so-called “soft major.”

Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney (BA in English and Theater from Denison University). Eisner never took a business class while at university, and he has never regretted his decision to major in English.  He told USA Today, “Literature is unbelievably helpful because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships. It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick.”

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard (BA in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford). Fiorina credits her formal study of the dramatic transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance as providing a contextual frame for her understanding of the digital revolution.

Ted Turner, founder of CNN and TBS (BA in Classics from Brown University). Turner majored in Classics despite receiving a letter from his father that famously opened with this: “I am appalled, even horrified that you have adopted Classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home.”

Sam Palmisano, former president and CEO of IBM (BA in History from John Hopkins).

Kenneth Chenault, CEO at American Express (BA in History from Bowdoin College). Chenault is a strong proponent for the importance of a liberal education. He told Bowdoin Magazine “I am a strong believer in liberal arts education…what we really need today are people who have broad perspectives, people who are willing to take some chances intellectually and learn about subjects that they may not be the best in the world at. We need people who are going to be intellectually curious.”

Steve Wynn, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Wynn Resorts, Limited (BA in anthropology and English literature from University of Pennsylvania).

 

 

 




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