The degree to which the liberal arts should comprise the core of a University’s “core curricula” is at the crux of an ongoing debate between a University’s chancellor and a columnist of renown. At issue is the University’s move to reduce the minimum hours of liberal arts courses required for all undergraduate degrees from the current 65 hours to 35 hours, the latter being a state-mandated minimum.
The columnist, whose credentials include a Pulitzer Prize and a depth of thought that goes beyond the broadsides that pass for intellectual thought these days, argues that reducing the liberal arts requirement would compromise the quality of education and erode the University’s claim to providing a, well, “universal” education. The University argues for reducing the universal core from 65 to 35 hours and and letting the deans within the University determine what additional liberal arts courses should be required for a degree within their respective colleges.
Both positions have merit and it appears that the chancellor and the columnist will wind up agreeing to disagree, neither being inclined to compromise on their “core” beliefs in the matter. While I wouldn’t presume to second guess either, each being highly regarded in the community, I have a few observations about the liberal arts and their role in leadership.
In my work with senior executives over 25 years, a keen appreciation for the liberal arts, if not a deep grounding in them, is a distinguishing characteristic of those I’d consider most respected and effective. They are able to understand and relate to a broader and more diverse spectrum, professionally, culturally and demographically. They actively solicit and more appreciate (if not always endorse) perspectives and approaches different from their own. They also have a better understanding of the impact their organization in general and their decisions in specific have on the broader community.
They understand the origins of diverse thought, understand the value of alternative perspectives, and factor them into their leadership style and organizational strategy. This broader view of the world and its various components also plays a positive role in developing people and providing an environment in which they can thrive, not merely exist. And providing an environment that breeds individual and organizational success is one of the prime responsibilities of a leader. It creates added value within individuals that translates into a competitive advantage for the organization and the constituencies it serves.
Several years ago, a CEO with an engineering background, sought me out to help him prepare an address to a national trade association comprised of engineers. Now to be honest, when I ask most of those I prepare public addresses and speeches for what they want it to be about, the response is usually “About 20 minutes.” Not so with this CEO. His response was “I want to talk about the need to better emphasize liberal arts in the engineering curriculum. Even if it means adding a year to the undergraduate degree plan.” Really? I was impressed. Over the succeeding couple of weeks we worked together on such a message. It was not lost on me that in this CEO’s company, his senior executive team was very diverse in every way and ultimately produced a number of equally successful CEO’s.
Scaling back on liberal arts requirements could reduce a University education to a University training. A distinction without a difference? Not really. An education focuses primarily on “thinking” while training focuses on “doing.” Both are needed, to be sure. But the former is essential for effective leadership and success. Knowing how to do something is not nearly as important as knowing what needs to be done.
At this point, let me offer an important qualifier: the value of an appreciation for the liberal arts among executive leadership presupposes that leaders also possess knowledge, experience and appreciation for the skills necessary to get the work done. Of course, without that the work, no matter the aptness of the vision, never gets done.
And while it may sound like a stretch, an appreciation for the liberal arts which ideally leads to a more universal view of the world and its diverse thought, cultures and perspectives can play a vital role in avoiding missteps made through ignorance and/or lack of regard for same. Just ask BP’s Tony Hayward about that.
I will leave determining the magic number for a University’s core curricula to others. But diminishing the importance of or watering down the liberal arts is not conducive to equipping leaders-to-be in the corporation and the community.
It is lamentable that an appreciation for and investment in the liberal arts is not as valued as it once was. The good news for the organization looking for a competitive advantage is that giving the liberal arts more than lip service when it comes to selecting, grooming and annointing leaders can be one of the best business decisions it can make.
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