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The Life of Leading Greatly  
June 2011

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In this Issue:

The Hidden Value of Liberal Arts: Nurturing Our Aspiring Leaders



    The Hidden Value of Liberal Arts: Nurturing Our Aspiring Leaders

Michael Shenkman“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
W.B. Yeats

I recently addressed an audience of faculty, students, administrators and guests from my alma mater, Dickinson College, in Carlisle, PA. The substance of my talk centered on the idea that a liberal arts education informs, guides and deepens a leader’s aspirations.

In the meantime, the value of a college education is being challenged. In all the conversations on the subject, the notion that a liberal arts education nurtures our leaders’ aspirations does not even show up.

Take, for example, an article by Louis Menand, in the June 6, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

He cites three “theories” for investing in a college education:

(1) gain qualifications to enter into elite professions;

(2) provide people with “norms of reason and taste,” in order to provide social coherence; and

(3) learn the specialized skills needed in advanced economies.

These reasons refer exclusively to the economic value of a college education, as providing a means to increase earning power. Most theories about the value of a college education take these tracks. There is a fourth theory out there, voiced meekly and almost apologetically, which rhapsodizes about the humanizing value of a liberal arts education. This theory mitigates the downside of the economic value theories by elevating the opportunity for a better quality of life over the earnings one accumulates in a lifetime.

My proposal adds a fifth theory to the mix: a liberal arts education (in particular) provides graduates who envision taking on roles as leaders with the tools to enrich, cultivate, sustain and promote their aspirations.

Aspirations are things of air: they are not designated in career paths; professions do not certify them; and they are not guaranteed by trends. Aspirations break through given circumstances and strive to offer people something more expansive and more encompassing than existing social and economic, or technological and institutional arrangements provide.

To act on their aspirations, leaders come to rely on very substantial, deep and well-grounded skills of character and self-trust. To fulfill those aspirations requires a commitment of steel, to be sure; but it also requires envisioning wider worlds, and then envisioning a reasoned, sensible, grounded narrative if those aspirations are to be realized. And leaders also need to learn how to recover, reset and start again when they fail. To be sure, such aspirations do not require a liberal arts education, but, I would argue, such an education greatly increases the likelihood that a life of leading will not collapse into cynicism, despair or paralysis.

How so?

A liberal arts education provides aspiring leaders with key resources. Among these are:

(1) a breadth of knowledge that spans different discourses, cultures and different fields of endeavor, so that a vision of their cross-fertilization is possible – a basic requirement for organizations operating in complex economies;

(2) a sense of the depth of commitment needed to bring a great idea to fruition – this we learn from accounts of all the great struggles that other leaders have endured;

(3) a profound sense of being able to learn what needs to be learned in order to meet high standards and exacting goals; and

(4) a deep source of recourse for refreshment, revitalization and restoration that will be needed when leaders confront inevitable failures and setbacks, and when the world changes beyond recognition, seemingly instantaneously.

When looked at from this perspective, the standard theories only account for the most superficial of “economic values,” and do not even glimpse the underlying and most essential value of all: nurturing the aspirations of leaders.

We do indeed have a crisis in education. But the real crisis for me consists of not seeing what it takes to prepare the myriad leaders we need in every nook and cranny of our complex world. The crisis consists of neglecting the unimpeachable, irredeemable value of studying, learning and reflecting on the great figures of humanity — exactly what a liberal arts education demands. This deficit starts accumulating long before a student goes off to college. It starts with the reduction of early education to the mechanics of teaching to the test.

By devaluing what the liberal arts offer — science and math, but also history and literature and philosophy and critical thinking — we are asking our future leaders to proceed blindly into the complex, multi-faceted, highly international and financially integrated world they aspire to change. It is not that a liberal arts education is the only way to nurture and sustain a leader’s aspirations; but it is the best way we have come up with so far.

Are we so willing to be blinded by all that glitters that we completely miss our most important asset: the leader’s aspiration? What else, besides those aspirations and the hard work they impose, builds our shared future? How much is educating, enriching and nurturing those aspirations worth? How much does neglecting that education cost?

What are your thoughts about the value of a liberal arts education? If you are a leader who has this experience, what has it meant to you? Maybe you could offer some words of encouragement to parents who are concerned about the costs or students who are concerned about their income prospects.

Place your comments on the blog, or on the Leader Mentoring Facebook page.

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