Why A Liberal Arts Education Is Best

I am sometimes asked — and I don’t know why that is — what course of study I recommend for college students wishing to become successful in business. My answer usually provokes skepticism if not scorn. I recommend a liberal arts education. In the age of the Internet and the new economy, specialized technical knowledge is revered. Most of those who ask my opinion figure I’m going to say something like “computer programming” or “communications engineering.”

In fact, I think that type of education is the least likely to put you at the top of your field — either as an entrepreneur or as a corporate climber. There are several reasons I feel that way. First, technical knowledge is temporary. The more trendy the technology, the faster it changes. What you learn now will become less and less true as time goes on. Eventually, it will become obsolete. Spending your college career learning technical specifications is like collecting vinyl records when you know record players are going out of style.

You may have fun doing it, but you will end up with a mindful of stuff you don’t use anymore. Another reason I don’t like technical majors is the time they take. The typical engineering student — if he aims to get good grades and thus get into a good graduate school — must use up most if not all of his credits on esoteric subjects that only a fellow techie would even begin to understand. All that specialization leaves very little time for “softer” skills like reading, writing, and thinking — and virtually no time for hanging around and having fun. But the main reason I advise against a technical major is that technical workers have secondary roles in business.

In “How to Become CEO” (a mostly very good little book for corporate types), Jeffrey Fox distinguishes between “staff jobs” (which make a business work) and “line jobs” (which make a business profitable). He says that in most companies “most of the people are either in administration or field sales. Administrative people are not bad, or untalented, but they are not on the cutting edge. The company doesn’t depend on them.”

I made this point to FS just the other day. He had the idea that he would “do better” in business if he majored in computer sciences or some such “high-tech” major. He said he didn’t especially like that course of study but that since he wanted to be successful in business, he figured it was to his advantage to do so.

From what I’’ve seen in business, I told him, staff people (and I’d include all technical people in this category) are unfairly but very often viewed as:

1. Temporary: You need them only as long as you need technical know-how.

2. Expensive: Because they fall onto the “expense” side of the P&L, keeping their compensation low makes (or seems to make) good fiscal sense

3. Expendable: When sales slow down, all expenses are trimmed — including salaries for staff employees.

Good line employees, on the other hand, are seen as: 1. Necessary: They create the sales, and sales are always needed.

2. Worthwhile: Since most line positions are compensated at least partly on the basis of performance, the usual attitude is “The more we pay you, the more valuable you are.”

3. Irreplaceable: People who create sales have a secret power that the company does not want to lose to its competition. Again, the more money you make, the more irreplaceable you become. Now let’s look at the other side. What’s so good about a liberal arts education?

A good liberal arts education teaches you three skills: to think well, to write well, and to speak well. And in the corporate world — and in the entrepreneurial world as well — wealth is created by analyzing problems, figuring out solutions, and selling those solutions. In other words, a liberal arts education is tailor-made to give you the skills you need to succeed in business. And not just to do well. I’m talking about going all the way to the top.

Businesses have one fundamental problem that presents itself endlessly in different disguises: how to sell products/services profitably. There are many, many solutions to this problem. Even in a specific situation on a specific day for a specific business, there is always more than one solution. And the person who can regularly come up with solutions — and convince others that his solutions should be implemented — is the person who is going to get the rewards: The money. The power. The prestige.

Yes, you can improve your thinking, writing, and speaking skills while enrolled in a technical curriculum, but it will happen indirectly and additionally. It won’t be what you are mainly concerned with. With a liberal arts education, you ensure that you will spend most of your undergraduate time learning and practicing the very skills you will use later to get your ideas and solutions sold.

That said, I must confess that LSF, my eldest son, is studying computer engineering at Tulane. And BPF is about to go off to study music. Apparently, I’ve had more success promoting my ideas in my business life than I have in my home. Oh, well.