The Value of the Liberal Arts in an Undergraduate Education

Address to the Lehigh Tower Society, September 28, 2013

Donald E. Hall
Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean of Arts and Sciences

Lehigh University College of Arts and Sciences - Donald E. HallGood morning everyone!  I’m very happy to be here to share a few thoughts on what we at Lehigh do spectacularly well and what we need to celebrate and preserve in the education that we give our undergraduates.  At a time when news headlines and online media stories proliferate concerning the need for more narrow vocational training for our students, I want to argue that the opposite is the case. As I travel and lecture around the globe what becomes quickly apparent is that those economies that are less flexible and dynamic than ours are ones in which educators and politicians are beginning to clamor for a stronger base in the liberal arts compared to their old model of apprenticeship and highly specialized education.  When I teach or lecture in China or Germany or Japan or France, what I hear from my university colleagues is that they and the public at large now envy an American model of liberal arts based education at precisely the moment when we are, strangely and illogically, considering abandoning it for one that has proven to be less successful at training creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, and intellectually nimble employees.  Why would we want to commit the same mistakes that have mired other nations in prolonged recession and a continuing reliance on copying others rather than creating and innovating, and that has led to a brain drain to the United States rather than the reverse?  It simply makes no sense.

A very recently released survey done by the American Association of Colleges and Universities on employer priorities for undergraduate learning outcomes confirmed what we at Lehigh know:  80% said that they wanted a broad base of knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences for new employees, 78% asked for knowledge about global issues and societies and cultures beyond the US, 82% wanted colleges and universities to place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, 80% more emphasis on written and oral communication skills, and 91% more emphasis on problem solving in diverse settings (see 2013 Employer Survey).  This is the power of a liberal arts background:  it prepares one for a lifetime of learning and career development.  It prepares one to be employed for a lifetime rather than leads one to be rendered obsolete after a decade.

Similarly, I came across a Harvard Business Review piece not too long ago written by a CEO of an Australian business turn-around and transformation firm; it was titled “Want Innovative Thinking?  Hire from the Humanities.”  He states, and I quote, “People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings … have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”  He continues, “an understanding of history is indispensable if you want to understand the broader competitive arena and global markets,” that “Any great work of art—whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual—challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture.  This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.”  He concludes his article with this warning:  “If you want another good reason to hire from the humanities, consider this:  consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain like to hire them for all of the reasons I’ve described above.  You can hire liberal arts graduates yourself, or you can pay through the nose for a big consulting firm to hire them to do the thinking for you” (see

Some prominent American politicians are arguing the opposite, of course, that especially in public universities, students should not even be given the option to major in anthropology, philosophy, or religion studies because those fields have no (in their critics’ perspectives) “practical” use value or benefit.  I again assert the opposite:  we do not need more narrowly trained technicians—we need more creative thinkers who see the world’s problems as more than simply technical challenges. This is not to say that philosophers will solve all world crises—far from it.  A philosophy or art student will benefit as much from exposure to math, sciences, and business fields as students in technical fields will benefit from exposure to art and literature. I have a PhD in English but my ability to manage very successfully a $48.4 million budget for the College of Arts and Sciences is as much a product of the training I had in math and accounting as it was the analytical and communication skills I acquired through my humanities education.  They have to go hand in hand.  But I cannot and will not claim that I am a success only because I took 2 semesters of accounting classes as an undergraduate.

I’ll share with you a disturbing conversation I had recently.  I was visiting a sick parent a week ago and was having dinner at the bar of the hotel that I stayed at.  This was in Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up and a lot of people were in town and at that hotel in anticipation the next day’s football game.  Somehow I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me who revealed that he had received his BA from the U of Alabama, as had I three years after him. I asked him what he did, and he said he had a very successful, large insurance firm.  I asked what he majored in at Alabama, and he actually said, “something totally worthless that really has no relationship to my success in life:  political science.”  Well, I also happened to have a BA in political science from the same department and I challenged him on that statement:  how can he say that learning to analyze data, compile it into the 20-page research papers that were required in every class at that time in that department, argue and defend his points, and find common ground with classmates in classroom discussions has no relationship to his professional success? It has everything to do with my professional success as an administrator.  He actually blushed and said that he knew I was right, but that he had gotten so used to apologizing for what he had studied that he had finally given up completely trying to defend it and simply joined in the chorus saying that liberal arts training is a worthless pursuit.  He even admitted that every year he sends $5000 to the College of  Arts and Sciences at Alabama because he was grateful for what they did for him (and had never sent a penny to the football team) but he did so without letting any of his friends know.

It is tragic that we have become so blind to the things that make us successful and creative that we jump on some bandwagon of condemnation of the liberal arts and that leads us to argue that we want to become more like economically stagnant countries in Europe or East Asia or others than are economically vibrant but not successful at innovation, rather than celebrate what has made us great.

It is no surprise that two of the most revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century—Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs—were also individuals who loved music, art, and culture.  They had a complexity of vision acquired through a deep exposure to the original thinking and creative expression that leads to innovation. Indeed, Jobs attributed some of his most revolutionary innovations in designing the first generation of Apple computers to the influence of a calligraphy class he took at Reed College. The modern personal computer is partially the result of an immersion in Chinese character drawing. Similarly Einstein studied and play violin, and had a deep love of German philosophy. These were not narrowly trained technicians.

We at Lehigh are doing things right. That is the reason students continue to do everything they can to gain admission to our university, even at a time of high tuition and economic uncertainty. What we provide in the College of Arts and Sciences is not simply an amusing enhancement to technical training; we provide the essential core training that students need in order to succeed in life: an ability to understand ambiguity, to reason with care and sensitivity, and to approach problems in all of their complexity. The arts and humanities in particular equip students for success in life. My own love of acting in amateur theatre and playing in orchestra are two of the things I credit for my success in life. If you want to be a successful public speaker—play Julius Caesar in a school production. If you want to learn to collaborate successfully—play the clarinet in an orchestra. 

We have amazing students and faculty in CAS who are living breathing models of creativity, innovation, and the ability to problem solve. They are in the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. You will hear about some of those arts faculty and students in a moment, but I want to leave you with the reminder that what has distinguished Lehigh from its competitors and can give it an even more memorable competitive edge in a, yes, higher education marketplace, is its roots in liberal arts training and its valuing of the life of the mind, not just the skills of the hands. In the event that we ever sell ourselves as the purveyors of technical training only we will quickly lose our competitive edge to those who can provide that training more quickly and cost-efficiently. We have stellar placement rates of our graduates into jobs, graduate schools, medical schools, and other rewarding pursuits. What is special and extraordinary about Lehigh is what our College of Arts and Sciences is responsible for:  educating innovators and creative thinkers. If the rest of the nation gives up on those pursuits and values, that opens even a wider market niche for us. Now is the time for us to be positioning ourselves even more uniquely in the national landscape of highly selective institutions.