Is a Liberal Arts Education Bad for Business?

by Ben Burdick for ARTSblog First of all, my answer to the question is a definite “NO,” and while I do think my history degree and music background may be part of the reason I didn’t go into business, I do think arts education is vital for producing a creative and competitive workforce.  But today, I read an article on entitled “Liberal Arts and the Bottom Line” where, apparently, following such disasters as the mortgage-backed securities blunder on Wall Street and the recent and ongoing BP oil spill, some business experts are suggesting that (gasp!) there are other things that need to be taken into account (employee quality of life, environmental impact, community health, etc.) other than the bottom line and that a business education should reflect that.  Their proposed solution: including more liberal arts in the curriculum of business students.  That’s right, business experts are suggesting that business curricula include the arts because it will lead to a more well-rounded, and, if you can believe it, more ethical business executive.   From the article:

“On one level, these changes are an effort to assuage society’s concerns about bloodthirsty and uncaring business executives bringing down economies or risking the destruction of an entire coastline in the name of profit. But on another level, they reflect a growing belief that the kind of complex, critical thinking and ability to look at problems in larger contexts and from multiple points of view that a liberal arts education instills (at least in theory) actually leads to better decision-making skills in business executives.”

Sounds reasonable (and slightly encouraging) to me.  But the author goes on to tell what she calls a “cautionary tale” about creating a more well-rounded business exec.  In 1952, Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania offered a 10-month immersion course in the Humanities and Liberal Arts for up-and-coming Bell managers where these managers read the classics, listened to symphonies, toured art museums, and the like.  The result:

“By all appearances, the program was a rousing success, as well as a ringing endorsement of the benefits of a liberal arts education. There was, however, an unexpected twist in the program’s impact on the Bell managers. After learning about how much more there was in life than business, one of the questions they apparently decided was worth asking was, “why am I working so darn hard?” As the article put it, “while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities.”

Within a few years, Bell had discontinued the program.

It’s an interesting and–when you think about it–completely reasonable outcome. Aside from developing the ability to think critically and approach subjects from multiple perspectives and disciplines, the idea of a liberal arts education is to develop–as Professor Gavin said–a more well-rounded person. And being a workaholic is antithetical to a well-rounded person’s psyche.”

It’s an intriguing story, especially considering that the arts community has argued for years about the importance of arts education in preparing a creative 21st century workforce, and that most business executives now agree on the importance of that creativity.  Are we providing the gun for them to shoot themselves in the foot?  I certainly don’t think so, and I don’t think it implies that a liberal arts education makes for a less hard working employee, but, then again, is it really a bad thing to think about something other than the bottom line?