The theme I would like to pursue is, “What are the benefits of a liberal arts education to a student of business?” The ethics of business professionals has certainly been called to question, especially most recently within the accounting profession. How does a liberal education, particularly a Jesuit liberal education, contribute to creating business professionals who are ethical human beings, whose actions reflect an educated solidarity? What is a liberally educated person? To answer these questions I would like to share comments by William Cronon published in The American Scholar. Dr. Cronon, professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests that the components of a liberal education are not a listing of required courses or core curriculum, but rather the qualities or characteristics that a liberally educated person will possess. Although Dr. Cronon lists 10 qualities, I would like to share some of his comments and my own observations regarding a few, without diminishing the importance of all.
They listen and they hear. I know it sounds too simple, but it means they know how to pay attention, to follow an argument, track logical reasoning, hear the emotions that lie behind the argument and empathize with the person feeling the emotion.
They read, and they understand. Again, this sounds simple, but it is so very difficult and all encompassing. This quality implies the ability to gain insight from not only The New York Times, but also Scientific American, the Economist, The Wall Street Journal, the sports page; to enjoy the classics as well as current best sellers; to be moved by what one reads; to appreciate great art and beautiful music; to be able to surf the World Wide Web. Their eyes and ears are attuned to the wonders that make up the world. What is said for reading can also apply to writing; the ability to write in a manner that moves another.
They can talk with anyone. Dr. Cronon describes a liberally educated person as one who is at ease in conversation with a high school dropout or a Nobel laureate, with a child, or a nursing home resident, a factory worker or a corporate leader. They engage in such conversations not to talk about themselves but because of a genuine interest in others. I have had the pleasure to observe our students conversing with business leaders, as well as the elderly and those less fortunate that we serve through VITA. I am impressed by their genuine interest in others.
The liberally educated person can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems. This requires many skills—a basic comfort with numbers, familiarity with computers; skills of the analyst, the manager, the engineer, the critic. In effect, it encompasses the ability to accomplish practical goals. I believe all of my tax students would agree the tax law is a puzzle and that tax planning and compliance can be challenging problem solving exercises.
They understand how to get things done in the world. Learning how to get things done in order to leave the world a better place is one of the most practical and important lessons we can take from our education. We study power and struggle. The goal of Cecil Rhodes when establishing the Rhodes Scholarship was to identify young people who would spend their lives engaged in the struggle to leave the world a better place than they had found it.
Jesuit education aspires to educate the “whole person.” The Rev. [Peter-Hans] Kolvenbach [Superior General of the Society of Jesus] in his speech to Jesuit educators indicated that, in today’s environment, a person “cannot be whole without an educated awareness of society and culture with which to contribute socially, generously in the real world…that solidarity is learned through contact and not concepts.” In other words, through connecting.
And that is the final quality mentioned by Cronon.They follow E.M.Forster’s injunction from Howard’s End: “Only connect…” All of the qualities described—listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes—all are about connecting. Each of these qualities makes us more aware of the connections we have with other people and with the rest of creation. They remind us of our obligation to use knowledge and power responsibly; to exercise our freedom to make a difference in the world and to make a difference for more than just ourselves.
For years, the accounting profession has struggled to find competent personnel who can understand the complexities of the changing business world. In England, accounting firms seek to hire the best students from the liberal arts colleges, and then spend one to two years providing an accounting education. While the U.S. has not followed that model, students who graduate with an accounting degree from a liberal arts college are often highly recruited and highly successful in their careers.
Let me relate what we frequently hear from those who recruit and employ graduates of our business disciplines. Business graduates from other universities—particularly those universities without a liberal arts orientation—may enter the work force with a high degree of technical competence, but three or four years into their careers, our graduates typically surpass those initial hires from other universities. The success of our graduates is attributed to their liberal arts background. The benefits, the qualities, the characteristics that I just mentioned contribute to successful careers in the business world as well as in life.
Given the recent headlines revealing fraud, misrepresentations and managers who are solely self interest motivated—and particularly the negative repercussions that have befallen the accounting profession—the need for future manager leaders in the community who exhibit the qualities of a liberally educated person could hardly be greater. You, ladies and gentlemen, are challenged to fill that need. You are being asked to “only connect,” to manifest educated solidarity. Education is an ongoing, dynamic process—a means of enriching not only our own lives, but the lives of all those with whom we “connect.”