Liberal Arts vs Technical Disciplines

Big reason why liberal arts education is so valuable to future leaders and managers and decision makers. Liberal arts teaches values, and values are the essence of what drives humanity and behavior. Values provide a framework for prioritization— what matters, and what matters most? Whereas technical disciplines teach methods or analysis, crucial for execution once the values have been identified and defined.

Both are crucial for leadership.

However, liberal arts in the mainstream is often denigrated as being useless. How can English or philosophy or sociology or history psychology be of any use? How can I make money? What a waste to learn these things!

I think this thinking is rather impoverished and unimaginative. I think it’s a message for the masses.

Society is comprised of humans, and understanding humanity is a tremendous asset, the greatest asset for leaders or visionaries. What is important? What do people care about? What do people want, need, desire, cherish?

The liberal arts is the bedrock for leadership and management. Technical skills are important, but you can leverage other’s skills. I don’t think it works the same the other way around. Leaders need to know the way, go the way, and show the way.

When being pestered with questions about whether he was ignorant, Henry Ford replied:

”If I should really WANT to answer the foolish question you have just asked, or any of the other questions you have been asking me, let me remind you that I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer ANY question I desire to ask concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts. Now, will you kindly tell me, WHY I should clutter up my mind with general knowledge, for the purpose of being able to answer questions, when I have men around me who can supply any knowledge I require?”

I think a broad liberal arts education (self taught or formal schooling) becomes increasingly important as you become increasingly responsible for other people.

Children from the wealthiest families overwhelmingly pursue “useless degrees” in the liberal arts. Children from the poorest families overwhelmingly pursue “practical degrees” in technical disciplines. There are obvious exceptions but this is what the data says.

You could conclude that wealthy students have the luxury of having a useless liberal arts degree, but I’m inclined to believe there’s something more here. That those families understand the life importance of a liberal arts education.

And I’m not saying that just because you pursued a technical subject there’s no value. Definitely not the case. It’s just that as you accrue more influence over the life’s of others, technical skills matter less and less. Leading an organization or others is not about your technical understanding, but about your understanding of the human condition, which is crucial for managing others and providing a compelling vision to organize around and strive for.

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