The perils of liberal arts

Three months ago, my daughter, now a junior at the College, announced that she wanted to major in chemistry. I do not think that she would ever have considered this when she started at the College in 2010. I truly blame liberal arts education for this.

Let me explain my perspective: Germany, my home country, does not have liberal arts education. As a teenager in the ’70s, I wanted to be come a politician and make the world a better place. So at 18, I enrolled at the University of Cologne in the economics and political science departments, full of enthusiasm and idealism. But in the German university system, you must declare a definite major on day one and all classes are solely pegged to this subject.

Six months later, I dropped out.

I remember the day well: I sat in a lecture on statistics and macroeconomics in which the professor talked in the most abstract terms about the net reproduction rate of the population and that a (thirsty) Homo economicus behaves uneconomically by drinking beer because water does the job (of quenching thirst) much more economically.

Being an idealist, I could not take the direct hits of abstraction and thought. It was cynical to think of humans in those terms. (Ironically, I completed an executive MBA 20 years later and thoroughly enjoyed those classes.) I simply was not ready to take in this concentrated dose of cold facts.

After another six months of low-paying jobs, I enrolled in architecture school and thoroughly immersed myself for years. Architecture had not been my calling untill then, but I found a program that challenged me on many levels – technically, artistically and scientifically – had a skill and craft component and was intellectually demanding. My enthusiasm eventually got me a Fulbright scholarship and a Master’s degree from Virginia Tech.

To this day, I believe that studying architecture is the closest thing to a liberal arts education. It allows one to frame the world in many different ways and frees up independent thinking and visioning.

Circling back to the College, I can truly appreciate the beauty of a liberal arts education with my history.

When my daughter explained the concept of Winter Study, I looked at the options and was completely intrigued by a class on Go, the Japanese board game. What an opportunity! My daughter, frowning at me, instead picked an independent study on sustainable tourism and spent a month in an orphanage in Nepal. Neither of these options relate to a chemistry major, but I am convinced that both make you a better, more well-rounded person, which ultimately pays off in the professional world.

When my MBA commencement speaker in 2004, the chief financial officer of a DAX 30 company, was asked what he looks for in interviews with fresh graduates for the corporate work place, he answered as follows: Hire for the “three ‘I’s”: intelligence, intensity and integrity. Intelligence being the ability to grasp and adapt, intensity being passion and depth and integrity being the willingness to “walk the talk.”

Notice how industry specific know-how is not on this list! That is because in most professions, this has a short half-life, while the “three ‘I’s” are deeply ingrained personality traits that enable you to learn, develop, improve and accomplish anything.

In his 2001 book Good to Great, Jim Collins phrased it differently, but no less effectively: “First Who, Then What: Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where to go,” meaning that good people can influence and adopt to any strategic direction.

The take-away is that you must take risks, try out new things, go with the flow – but you must do so in earnest. Accumulated factual knowledge is useful, but alone it will usually not get you involved in any higher-level occupation. It is unlikely anyone will succeed solely through opportunistic career decision-making, chasing money or trends (though with notable unfortunate exceptions). Only personal passion should ultimately direct the way. At the very least, you would be an unhappy human being otherwise.

Williams allows you to discover and to become a better person, to be one of the right people on the bus, one who does not follow short-term distractions – a person that follows their heart and passion.

I blame the College for giving you that opportunity. Use it! Carpe diem!

Uwe Nienstedt lives in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. He is the parent of a student at the College.

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