Liberal arts teach critical thought

Liberal arts majors have fallen prey to the old question of “what can you do with that major?”

Liberal arts schools are enduring an unrelenting attack in the public media. Critics of higher education rail against the excessive cost of a college education and the high rate of student debt and default. In linking college completion with potential income and job skills, liberal arts majors have fallen prey to the old question of "what can you do with that major?"

I teach economics in a business school where the majors are every parent's dream: accounting, economics, finance, information systems/operations management, marketing and management. There is an assumption that study in these disciplines results in job opportunities immediately following college graduation. Business schools tend to have effective networks of alumni and strong ties to businesses in their region. Students have ample guidance in developing interviewing and resume writing skills. But this is not enough to produce the educated leaders needed for America to compete in the global marketplace.

A critical part of my students' education is completion of a core of 17 courses spread across a myriad of disciplines including philosophy, modern languages, history, English, mathematics and the natural and social sciences. In guiding college students toward contemplation of "big" questions, that often don't have a right or wrong answer, the hope is that they will enter the larger community with the skills that will enable them to engage productively in the civic progress of society. At the individual level, a business student whose abilities to read critically, write and speak clearly, and to be quantitatively competent are underdeveloped is of little use in the long run to any business. John Maynard Keynes famously stated that "in the long run, we are all dead," but it is the American economy that will be economically dead — stagnant — without the requisite investment in our human capital.

A vibrant liberal arts curriculum challenges students to think critically, rather than to accept what others say or write without questioning. Recently I proposed that my macroeconomics principles students read, respond and reflect on a selection from Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." The excerpt began with the question "So you think that money is the root of all evil?" Having read this the students then wrote their reactions on the blackboards. This was followed by a lively discussion that touched on concepts of morality, whether money creates evil behaviors or vice versa and how this plays out in our society today. The conversation spanned the use of the gold standard, the role of government (or lack thereof), who should be rich and why, and how much people are worth. Furthermore, students contemplated the tools made available to the middle and lower classes to encourage upward mobility, which used to be the hallmark of the American dream.

The result was engaged students forced to look beyond textbook models, less concerned about receiving a passing grade and more mobilized to respond to different points of view in an educated, thoughtful and tolerant manner. Rand's works have influenced those at the heights of power (Alan Greenspan, for example) and continue to resonate today. What these young people took away from the text was as individualistic as Ayn Rand herself, and even within a seemingly homogeneous group, the attitudes toward rich and poor — those entitled and those dependent on entitlements — varied wildly. When asked to support their positions, students relied upon knowledge gleaned from far beyond the business sphere, ranging from theology to philosophy to human behavior.

It is tempting to utilize only cost/benefit analysis models to determine the success or failure of American institutions of higher education. Yet, as students learn in Economics 101, every model is accompanied by assumptions. Is it irrational to assume that an investment in millennials in the form of a complete, well-rounded education will result in an informed citizenry and a future business community that looks beyond profit and loss statements? I believe not. Liberal arts studies enhance a business education and produce a most precious commodity — a creative, thoughtful and compassionate workforce.

Lynne Stern Elkes teaches economics at Loyola University Maryland. Her email is lelkes@loyola.edu.

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