In the May 2014 commencement of University of Southern California, I will be alone- sitting with the graduates from Dornsife School of Arts, Letters, and Sciences, while most Indonesians will be in the Marshall School of Business, and a few in Engineering. They have Elon Musk addressing future business leaders, and I will have someone whose name I will be busy googling during the ceremony itself.
Forgive my bitterness, but this essay is actually written to argue that you should study liberal arts in your undergraduate career, despite some of its drawbacks.
Yes, liberal arts education brings you to a state of perpetual discomfort of why exactly you are learning nature vs. nurture, the meaning of modern art, and the history of anything and everything. It is a road less travelled for many who see their path to be clearly entrenched in the world of practical business- be it banking, consulting, or their family business’ specific industries. Having gone through four years of Biochemistry while pursuing a minor in Entrepreneurship, I understand the exoticness of a Computer Science or Spanish major taking a Business Strategy class, applying to business school, or simply contributing to dinner parties.
And speaking of dinner parties, imagine one that is attended by a student studying English, and another studying Biology. That night, after the conversation steered itself towards the latest movie trends, the English student noticed the cue to point out a classic piece of literature on which the screenwriter drew inspiration from. The table fell silent, and someone would apologize, excusing him or herself for not having time to read (but meaning to do so). And as another brought forth nutrition on the table, the Biology student made a remark about human metabolism. Obviously, this time, nobody apologized for not knowing science; they simply say that science is not for them, as if it takes a talent to master (2).
Before you make any disputes and remarks, those words are not originally mine (don’t hate me), though they encapsulate pretty well the popular stigma about Liberal Arts. They are of Clifford Johnson, a celebrated physics professor in USC, whose work in string theory and quantum gravity won awards, brought pride to the school, and inspiration to his students.
He also mentioned that students educated in liberal arts value literature and learn for its own sake of scientific reasoning and critical thinking; and Clifford Johnson is indeed, a professor, whose life long vocation lies in the pursuit of science. Where I come from, that person doesn’t exist because he/she would instead reside in America. To not be hypocritical, I did major in Biochemistry to one day pursue pharmacology, initially because my family’s business thrives there. But my typical Indonesian parents taught me that in the end, it is all about business (later I realized such outward thinking was adopted widely in Jewish families as well).
She isn’t wrong. Turns out, studying Biochemistry prepared me well for my interest in business. Talk to any Human Relations in a consulting or finance firm, and they would vouch my claim. And because lists are the best, here I lay my reasoning.
- You will naturally be more charming: As leaders in a company, taking interest and drawing inspiration from another industry is a charming quality, one similar to when Harvey Specter and Mike Ross talk in movie references after crushing a case. It is your most esoteric quality that draws people to partner and do business with you. It is also powerful, because it enables you to draw analogies, which Hallmark, the card company, uses all the time: “I love you like a fat kid loves his donuts.” Love, like business strategies, or financial products, is hard to sell, let alone explain. Though often misleading, analogies are a great way to convey personality and relate to others.
- You are more inclined to embrace entrepreneurship: While a few friends and I were thinking of establishing our own business, we bonded through our love for entrepreneurship and food. As I looked around the brainstorming table, a team member is currently studying Operations Research after studying Physics, and another is an Economics major with an interest in computer science. I won’t go as far as saying that liberal arts brought forth our entrepreneurial spirit. However, the courage to be different, inclination to inquire, passion for life-long learning, and effective reasoning are all traits that fuel passion in both.
- You like reading: According to a study, one of the most distinguishable traits of liberal arts major or education is its positive attitude towards literacy. And it is described as generally as it could, because positive attitude to literacy can include learning from history, seeking answers in other’s findings, and highly valuing research to make decisions. While this can be the make-or-break trait in investing, it can also come in handy when you’re trying to be creative in writing reports, memos, and e-mails.
- You take things less literally: Especially in finding a job (I am aware of the infographics showing comparisons of wages, or the list of top 20 most unemployable majors). Let’s face it; a very small percentage of the Liberal Art student population is going to be an actual professor or scientist. Instead, the students I’ve seen end up as doctors, lawyers, bankers, and consultants. A famous Yale report also said that Liberal Arts are the best means to prepare for a changing society. The Association of American Colleges & Universities brought relevance to the claim, reporting that it also prepares for the multiple demands in the 21st century (2). In other words, changing jobs wouldn’t be a problem, because your expertise isn’t an industry-specific skill; it is the ability to make mental associations and grasp concepts quickly.
Too many times I’ve heard of people who used to be great at philosophy, astronomy, economics, physics, biology, or languages end up taking business. I hope by now, you are convinced that those passions do not have to be a dusty chapter in your life. Your interests are your power. As the author of The Fire Starter Sessions, Danielle LaPorte, writes,
“Be strategic with your desires. Leverage your contradictions. Say no to resentment and yes to inspiration. Make ease a metric of success.”
And she explains that these “are kindling for your soul fire, they are pathways to what you truly want” (3). So before you determine a major, or tell your children or friends to major in business, consider a life where conversations turn into discussions; friendship into partnerships; passion into business. Liberal arts can be a powerful thing, and I share this with you because I am fortunate enough, after years of having to balance Liberal Arts with my passion for business, to have been stranded, and then found again (seriously, analogy rules).
- Clifford , Johnson. “Phi Beta Kappa Keynote Address.” Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony. Phi Beta Kappa, Epsilon Chapter. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. 28 Mar 2014. Address.
- Seifert, Tricia A., Kathleen M. Goodman, et al. “The Effects of Liberal Arts Experiences on Liberal Arts Outcomes.” Research in Higher Education. 49.2 (2008): 107-125. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
- Danielle, LaPorte. The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms. New York: Crown Archetype, 2012. eBook.