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Using Liberal Studies to Boost Your Business Education

Some people believe that business and liberal studies mix about as well as oil and water. This simply isn’t true.

The mission of liberal studies (also referred to as liberal arts) is to create well-rounded, highly informed decision-makers, people who can create visions and forge success for organizations.

Some notable business leaders earned liberal arts degrees in college, among them:

  • Andrea Jung, former CEO of Avon — B.A. in English Literature
  • Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company — B.A. in English Literature and Theater
  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube – B.A. in History and Literature
  • Howard Schultz, Executive Chairman of Starbucks — B.S. in Communications

Even Steve Jobs, arguably one of the most visionary and transformational business leaders of our time, studied literature and poetry in college before he dropped out.

Why are liberal studies so valuable to business students? Here are some reasons.

Critical Thinking

In the business world, it’s necessary to be able to understand the options, consider the available information, and make a decision that can lead to the best possible outcome. Many liberal studies classes teach students how to handle these challenging situations.

Courses such as English, philosophy and math are considered liberal studies because they have something in common: Students learn to make sense out of a lot of information, some of which might be contradictory.

Students may also learn how to:

  • Argue (instead of disagreeing) by being able to rationally justify a position.
  • Use logic to develop ideas and avoid flawed thinking.
  • Apply psychology and sociology to understand how individuals and groups respond to change.
  • Develop hypotheses and test them scientifically.

Communication

Liberal studies put a premium on clear, concise writing that can condense complicated topics into easy-to-understand narratives – something highly valued in an increasingly complex business world. Writing skills can lead to career possibilities in marketing, communications and public relations, even though communication skills are considered a valuable asset for sales, human resources, information technology, research and development, as well as accounting and finance.

“Studying literature and the arts, one gains insight into how various people expressed themselves at different times and in different situations – and also what timeless values people hold. Working on written responses to literature and art improves communication skills,” said Eugene Durkee, Director of New England College’s Office of Career and Life Planning.

Historical Perspective

In history and political science courses, students learn from the successes and failures of historical and political figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and the situations they faced.

Jack Cumming, writing for the American Historical Association, said that “Skills familiar to historians — analysis, writing, integrity — are what distinguish great business leaders. … [T]here is nothing like a historical perspective as preparation for business in a time of rapid change.”

Emotional Intelligence

It’s difficult to thrive in a liberal studies environment without learning to respect other people’s viewpoints. There are two reasons for this. First, many of the topics taught expose students to different ways of thinking. Second, group projects teach students how to work effectively with people that may not share the same ideas, values or work habits. Both these things help students gain an understanding and respect for the concept of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence relates to the ability to control emotions and sense them in others. It is an important skill to have, as it promotes healthy interpersonal relationships. Research has shown that emotional intelligence, more than IQ, is a predictor of business success, Travis Bradberry, president of TalentSmart, wrote in Entrepreneur:

“Of all the people we’ve studied at work, we’ve found that 90% of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence,” Bradberry wrote. “On the flip side, just 20% of bottom performers are high in emotional intelligence. You can be a top performer without emotional intelligence, but the chances are slim.”

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