Soft Skills and Clear Thinking: The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree in a Business Context

In the technocracy of our modern age, liberal arts degrees with concentrations such as English or Philosophy are often dismissed as impractical in the workforce, known as fast-track tickets to the leisurely and cosseted life of eternal basement-dwelling in the home of one’s parents. Still, students with great ambitions continue to pay exorbitant sums for the tuition associated with these diplomas. Further, many business leaders from the Silicon Valley (such as CEO of Palantir Technologies and holder of a PhD in Neoclassical Social Theory, Alex Karp) to Wall Street (see James Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan and a Psychology graduate of Tufts University) boast non-technical or vocational backgrounds at the undergraduate level. This paradox might point to fundamental misunderstanding about the value of these curricula outside of the classroom, and it certainly begs the following questions: In an age in which technical and vocational skill becomes increasingly valued, what is the value of a “soft” liberal arts degree? And, more importantly, what skills might a freethinking liberal arts graduate with limited business experience stand to bring to your organization?

One of the first criticisms that many liberal arts graduates receive when applying for business roles is centered on their lack of “relevant experience and skills”. The aim of a liberal arts curriculum, at least from a historical perspective, is not to equip graduates with technical skills, however, but rather with a sound framework for thought. The term originates from a classical sentiment in ancient Rome that “Thinking sets one free” (liberal, thus, is meant as a reference to the freedom that a man will have once having mastered such arts). With this goal in mind, the cursus is designed to provide its students with the tools and experience necessary to think critically, articulate their viewpoints clearly, and generally to be well-read and well-rounded individuals conversant in a number of topics. In a more modern context, and while its aim was initially to create “well-rounded” adults, a liberal arts curriculum often has the added benefit of exposing students, by way of a varied distribution of coursework, to situations in which they must become experts on new topics quickly. In our interviews with many professionals from various backgrounds, it emerged that this comfort with learning new skills and material in short amounts of time is a great boon in the working world. “I think my liberal arts education really reinforced for me the value of asking questions, even when they don’t have easy answers.” says Nadia Laher, Finance and Administration Coordinator at Liberty’s Kitchen and a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a BA in Political Science and Creative Writing. “My liberal arts education helped me practice being contemplative and creative, and caring about people and considering many sides of an issue…The hard skills, I’m picking up on the job everyday.”

Learning new skills quickly is not the only talent that almost-artists and would-be philosophers stand to bring to an organization, however. Students of the arts and humanities are often prompted to eloquently expound upon incomplete or inconclusive information (our aforementioned philosophy student, for example, would have likely spent hours extrapolating logical formulae stemming from the complex works of Wittgenstein, bringing meaning the obtuse writings of Derrida, or interpreting the evolution of the treatment of the female figure in visual art over time). Spending four years thinking one’s way through such material often renders ambitious students very comfortable with ambiguous situations. With regards to young, or at least new, hires, this tends to manifest itself in a certain level of comfort in solving complex, cross-functional problems. In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of business, young recruits with such aptitude can be a huge asset to any team. “In the words of Jennifer Galamba, Director of Operations for NexusCity and holder of a BA in Psychology from Barnard College, “The diverse forms of problem-solving I developed through my liberal arts education has a huge impact on my work. When thinking about complex issues, the ability to develop out-of-the-box solutions is a huge asset, and is a huge portion of my job on a daily basis.”  From an employer perspective as well, these skills appear to be recognized. When looking to hire for advisory roles at trepwise llc., for example, Managing Director Kevin Wilkins states that he looks explicitly for the skills that he himself honed as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College, where he studied Government. Chief among these are “…the ability to analyze systems, philosophies, and data, as well as the ability to problem-solve in the absence of complete information.”  Perhaps unsurprisingly, his team consists of employees with degrees in East Asian Studies, Psychology, and Urban Studies.

Learning skills, asking questions, and solving problems makes for effective employees. Communicating subsequent solutions to a team, constructing an ensuing approach, and managing the implementation makes for an effective leader. In addition to thinking critically and in a fashion that is both creative and comprehensive, liberal arts programs contain a critical exercise in articulating complex ideas and data: that of the extensive, and often continuous, research and writing of papers on any number of esoteric subjects. This ability to communicate complex ideas in a simple and organized fashion, in both written and verbal contexts, is often cited among the most difficult to teach. When identifying potential long-term employees, then, it becomes especially important that certain skills and attributes are in place to ensure the grooming of future management. EMH Consultant, Katherine Robinson, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University where she earned a BA in Sociology and International Studies, says of her undergraduate years “…[a] liberal arts [curriculum] has a strong emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving, and conveying your ideas in a way that is clear and logical, despite their complexity.  Whether analyzing a text in history, discussing international development theory in sociology, or learning Arabic, you are forced to take complex information, synthesize it, and communicate it in a way that others understand.” These skills have served Katherine well – in her first year as an advisor, she has managed projects ranging from the creation of a national, signature project for the Emeril Lagasse Foundation to the implementation of the City of New Orleans Civil Department’s “Great Place to Work” initiative.

At EMH, we are a team of generalists who will never presume to know more about the details of our clients’ businesses than they do. What we bring to any professional relationship, however, is a well founded outside perspective based on rigorous logic and supported by a deeply analytical approach. Further, and while our team is composed of a variety of professionals from a diverse set of backgrounds (with educational pedigrees ranging from liberal arts to professional training), we do see a similarity between the fundamentals of a liberal arts education and the skills necessary to be an effective member of a corporate or entrepreneurial team. We certainly see a similarity between these fundamentals and the varied, multifaceted engagements that we provide across a multitude of industries and sectors. For more information on how EMH can help your business approach a vexing management issue, navigate a major recent change, or provide insight on an upcoming project or program, contact us for more information.

Author Andrew Foley is an EMH Strategy Consultant and 2014 Venture for America Fellow.