The Importance of a Liberal Arts Education
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E., Europe experienced the Middle Ages. For almost one thousand years, science, philosophy and art stagnated, because political and religious leader saw an educated populace as a threat to their power. As a consequence, there was almost no progress.
However, around 1400, Europe experienced an awakening or rebirth, which we now call The Renaissance (French for “rebirth”). The Renaissance was a leap of consciousness in the European mind: scientists, philosophers and artists strived to increase their knowledge of all subjects. The greatest individuals of the time did not pursue just science or just art – they pursued all forms of human expression.
In addition to mastering multiple subjects, intellectual leaders saw the connections between different disciplines. For example, the great Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi understood that architecture was a synthesis of mathematics and art, and therefore applied both to his magnum opus, known simply as Brunelleschi’s Dome. Everyone during his time thought that such a dome could not be built, but Brunelleschi’s understanding of geometry and aesthetics was so refined that he proved them all wrong.
This ideal continued through the centuries. It began to be known as the “Renaissance Ideal” or “Liberal Arts Ideal.” Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States – Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – were considered “Renaissance Men.” They mastered not only Greek and Latin, but also the science of governance; they were both creative and disciplined, both visionary and practical. They had perfected their knowledge through sustained practice toward the liberal arts ideal.
It is this liberal arts ideal that many great universities have cultivated through the ages, including Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and many others. In fact, the University of Pennsylvania was founded by Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American Renaissance Man. Gentlemen (and later ladies) who graduated from these universities were expected to have a broad understanding of life – from the quantitative (mathematics, science, engineering, technology) to the qualitative (history, philosophy, art). Such Renaissance Men (and Women) would be capable of leading industries, societies and countries.
Liberal arts in Indian culture
Through the centuries, Indians have also aspired toward the liberal arts ideal. In the legendary forest ashrams of the Vedic period, gurus and disciples discussed everything from the nature of the Self to the science of music to systems of arithmetic. “Indian mathematicians would have developed modern numerals, the decimal place system, zero, and basic algebra and trigonometry; surgeons would be performing operations as sophisticated as cataract surgery and cesarean section.” All knowledge was sacred, and all sources of knowledge were revered.
Relevance of liberal arts today
Fundamental training in the liberal arts is as necessary today as ever before. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world, it is paramount that we cultivate leaders who see the big picture, who make connections between disciplines that range from technology to philosophy, economics to art. The liberal arts are critical to making sound decisions in politics, business, and society.
One may look at a liberal arts education as idealistic but not practical. This is inaccurate. The liberal arts can also lead to financial success.
For instance, let us look at the study of culture. Culture is the operating system of an individual or group. Culture shapes how an individual or group thinks, speaks and acts. Therefore, a deep understand of culture allows one to understand HOW people operate and WHY they operate the way they operate. This information is extremely valuable for a global businessman. Consider the question: Will Product X sell in Country Y?
Answering this question requires one to understand the different groups within Country Y. He must also understand the consumer preferences of each group. Then he must tailor his product to one or more groups. He must market his product in accordance with the group’s aspirations. A liberal arts training makes answering these questions a lot easier.
But an individual or group’s culture is a function of history. You can say that the present is a cumulative function of the past. Everything that happened in the past is contained in the present. Therefore, thoroughly understanding the past allows one to understand the present, and thoroughly understanding the present allows one to understand the future. People who can foresee the future are highly valued – and therefore highly paid – in today’s globalized economy.
This understanding helped financiers like George Soros and Jim Rogers become billionaires many times over. Soros studied philosophy at London School of Economics while Rogers studied history at Yale and philosophy at Oxford. Carl Icahn, another billionaire financier, studied philosophy at Princeton, while Steve Schwarzman, founder of The Blackstone Group, studied culture at Yale.
A recent Yale-NUS publication said about Rogers:
For himself, history has provided a window not only to the past but also into the future: a disciplined approach to understanding where the world is coming from, and where it is heading. Rogers added, “If you want to be successful at life, you should study history and philosophy,” because “whatever you think today is not going to be true tomorrow”.
Here is a practical example of the above point. What is the future of global oil prices? This is primarily a function of the history and the politics of the Middle East. The politics of these regions is a function of their leaders, who are functions of their respective cultures and histories. Their decisions will be shaped by their beliefs, including their religious beliefs. Therefore, without a strong liberal arts training, it is impossible to grasp the complexity of this situation and make appropriate political and business decisions. Statistics and other quantitative data are helpful, but qualitative data derived from the liberal arts are also critical.
Around 400 years ago, Isaac Newton identified the basic forces that govern the motion of objects. However, it is equally important to understand the forces that govern the stability and change of societies. Physics alone allows you to do the former. The liberal arts as a whole allow you to do the latter.