How to succeed in business without really trying? Major in philosophy!


My title–at least the first part–comes from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical of the 1960s, now I suspect embarrassingly dated (although it’s been revived as recently as 2011), that I adored in high school.  But this post comes in response to an op-ed piece published two days ago in the Dallas Morning News by two University of Dallas philosophy professors.  Their essay references the recent joint statement on the liberal arts by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which concluded that “Higher education’s contributions to the common good and to the functioning of our democracy are severely compromised when universities eliminate and diminish the liberal arts.”  The statement pointed out as well that “liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

This isn’t just wishful thinking or some theoretical position unsupported by evidence, as the Dallas philosophers argue.  Here’s how they open their essay:

Last month, a philosophy major from the University of Dallas carried his diploma straight from academia to a job in investment banking.  He got this job not despite his degree, but because of it.  A firm that manages trillions of dollars in assets contacted UD’s career office seeking a liberal arts major.

“Philosophy and the liberal arts give graduates a competitive advantage in the workplace by fostering critical thinking,” they write.  “But we believe that these disciplines cultivate an even more powerful skill: perceptive thinking.”  In support they turn to one of the world’s most successful businessmen:

In April, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told an audience at Southern Methodist University that he does not let his executives use PowerPoint, or even bullet points.  Instead, they must craft a six-page narrative memo for each meeting.  The first half-hour of the meeting involves silent reading of the text, followed by an engaging discussion.

Guess which majors best prepare their graduates to do that?  The philosophers go on to quote Mark Cuban, the flamboyant owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, among other businesses.  According to Cuban, “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data.”

In January Wall Street investor Bill Miller donated $75 million to the philosophy department at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University.  Here’s how he explained it, as quoted in the Dallas op-ed:  “Philosophy,” Miller said, “involves critical thinking and reasoning about highly complex issues.  At its best it is rigorous and analytical.  These skills are exactly what are required to think through and understand capital markets and the analysis of businesses.  However good one is at this, philosophical training will make you better.”

As an historian, I can only add that studying history, literature, political science, anthropology or sociology, as well as many humanistic inter-disciplinary majors, can also play a similar part in preparing their graduates for business–as well as for a more fruitful and rewarding life overall.  As the AAUP-AACU joint statement put it,

Institutions of higher education, if they are truly to serve as institutions of higher education, should provide more than narrow vocational training and should seek to enhance students’ capacities for lifelong learning.  This is as true of open-access institutions as it is of highly selective elite colleges and universities.  The disciplines of the liberal arts—and the overall benefit of a liberal education—are exemplary in this regard, for they foster intellectual curiosity about questions that will never be definitively settled—questions about justice, about community, about politics and culture, about difference in every sense of the word.  All college students and not solely a privileged few should have opportunities to address such questions as a critical part of their educational experience. And the disciplines of the liberal arts are central to the ideal of academic freedom, as well, because the liberal arts, by their nature, require free rein to pursue truth wherever it may lead.  As a result, they provide an intellectual bulwark for academic freedom.

Of course, to succeed in business it’s really best actually to try, Broadway musicals notwithstanding.  But, then again, success in the liberal arts demands effort as well.  Those universities, like the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and Superior campuses, that in a vain search for economy and relevance seek to follow Sen. Marco Rubio’s injunction that “we need more welders and less philosophers” by eliminating liberal arts majors, irresponsibly shortchange both their students and the public.