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A case for the liberal arts

MikeBrown-2Today’s focus on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is laudable, and no doubt helps guide impressionable young people into fields of study that will equip them directly for employment in today’s highly technical workforce.

That said, there is a real danger that as a society we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  The nuts and bolts of our economy may be based on the hard sciences to an unprecedented degree, but living in community with other humans – even when the money economy is the primary armature ordering those interactions – is definitively more art than science.

My own experience has given me some insight into both sides of this debate.  I majored in English in college, focusing on literary criticism because it interested me.  Fortunately I also learned a trade in those years, because the career track for literary criticism involves getting a PhD and praying for a professorship.  By the time I earned my B.A. I was 25 years old and earning more as a heavy equipment operator than any first year professor could hope for.  I was in the position that the current focus on STEM education seeks to avoid: I had an expensive degree that offered no immediate earning potential.  Only my advancing expertise in commercial construction saved me from the enforced post-college poverty that many of my liberal-arts friends endured while trying to find work in their chosen fields.

Over time, however, the benefits of the liberal arts education began to show themselves in mine and my friends’ careers.  In my own case, the flexible critical thinking and superior writing, speaking, and persuasion skills that I honed during my studies began to separate me from my peers as a leader.  I was singled out for advancement several times in quick succession, rising to the rank of superintendent, which is, on a construction site, equal parts ship’s captain and problem-solver-in-chief.  I was able to enjoy a very high quality of life and to earn some of the best workingman’s wages in the state of Colorado.  That is not the end of the story, however.

The study of the history of human thought, artistic endeavor, and social critique is a recipe designed to impart to the student a lifelong curiosity, a penchant for innovation, a recurring desire for reinvention and reinterpretation.  Accordingly, in my late twenties I enrolled in Business School as a way to recast my career.  On the first day of my masters-level statistics class I thought to myself, “I really should have gone to law school,” but I worked hard and succeeded, both in business school and, since, in business, because I was trained in college to have a flexible mind.  I was taught the ability to process different schools of logic, and the ability to communicate effectually.

In my current career as a real-estate developer, I work daily on a very wide range of disciplines.  I work on elements of law, planning and zoning issues, constructability, contracts, finance, economics, marketing, sustainability, general management, and corporate strategy.  I have to operate within these disciplines at a very high level, so that I can speak fluently in the dialects used by the best architects, attorneys, planners, bankers, public officials and contractors in the business, not to mention our staff, our investors, and our tenants.

Looking back over a great education and a richly varied life, I have to say that much of the success I enjoy in these broad fields today is a product of learning to understand Carl Marx’ logic even though I am a capitalist; of putting myself in George Kennan and Walter Lippmann’s shoes at the dawn of the Cold War although I came of age upon its demise; and of exploring in writing the evolution and relation of canonical thought in literature from St. Augustine through Matthew Arnold and on to T.S. Eliot and Jacques Derrida.

The years I spent in these seemingly impractical pursuits may not have contributed to my immediate employment then, but they left me with an intellectual training that not even years of bashing around construction equipment and singing in bars was able to dislodge.  Today I am enjoying the fruits of this winding road.

I should note, in closing, that I have definitely learned more from working since I was 16, and from the diverse situations and people that those jobs involved, than I’ve ever learned in a classroom.  The point I’m trying to make here, however, is that as far as formal education goes, we need liberal arts majors .  Many of our finest business and political leaders majored in the humanities: Mitt Romney, Hank Paulson, Justice John Roberts, and Carly Fiorina to name a few.

We’re correct to want to steer our students toward majors that make them job-ready upon graduation, but we also need to produce a well-rounded workforce with holistic thinkers in it.  We don’t need a generation of impractical philosophers, but we sure don’t want a generation devoid of philosophers either.

Mike Brown has a B.A. in English from Colorado College and an M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson. He is a founder and co-president of LocalConstruct, Inc, a Los-Angeles and Boise-based real estate company focused on improving development patterns throughout the western United States. For more, read A word with Mike Brown, co-founder of LocalConstruct by Editor Anne Wallace Allen. 



About Michael J. Brown