By Mike Panesis
Question: What’s the one question a liberal arts university graduate needs to know?
Answer: Do you want fries with that?
When you’re the butt of jokes, you hear them all. The public concludes that a liberal arts education is useless without truly understanding it. So, let’s first reflect on its true purpose and value, and then entertain a proposal for how a 21st century liberal education might evolve.
Understanding the liberal arts begins with some history. The concept of liberal education dates to ancient Greece as a complement to democracy. If all citizens had a vote in government, the Greeks reasoned, they should possess enough knowledge to inform their votes. The term liberal arts itself creates confusion. The Latin “artes liberalis,” from which the phrase “liberal arts” derives, means “skills required of a free person.” A liberal education has nothing to do with politics and includes not just the arts and humanities, as we know them, but also the social and physical sciences.
At the heart of a liberal education is a general education requirement like those found at most universities. Students are expected to develop skills for inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, communication, social responsibility, cultural awareness and quantitative literacy. Students sometimes treat general education as a necessary evil — required courses to endure while they acquire skills that lead to a job in their major courses. A liberal education more carefully reinforces the skills of a general education, building them into every major and every course for all four undergraduate years.
Consequently, every liberal arts graduate is a generalist. The major on a graduate’s degree isn’t so much a career statement as a subject mastered, the first of many in the path of a lifelong learner. In a world where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person will have 12 to 15 jobs in his or her lifetime, doesn’t a generalist’s education make sense?
Liberal education has endured millennia by adapting. As the world changes, so must what is expected of its citizens. Critics will point to low starting salaries of liberal arts alumni as a shortcoming of the generalist ethos. Liberal arts universities will cite statistics that over the course of a career, the cumulative income of liberal arts alumni meets and often exceeds most benchmarks. They’re both right. Despite its long-term strengths, a liberal education is heavy on analyzing and evaluating and light on what to do with all that knowledge.
We at California Lutheran University’s Center for Entrepreneurship believe that the study of entrepreneurship can bridge that gap. Entrepreneurs learn to be aware of their environment, take risks, think critically and creatively, identify opportunities to bring value and meaning to others, and marshal the resources needed to realize goals. These are skills expected of any 21st century citizen living in a gig economy. Furthermore, entrepreneurial thinkers are needed now more than ever to tackle big problems, from building the next great tech startup to minimizing and perhaps reversing the effects of climate change.
We believe that all students should study principles of entrepreneurship, first as part of a general education. Students who want to know more can minor in entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurship minor can be incredibly valuable to a liberal arts graduate. It represents a modicum of practical experience that employers find wanting in a traditional liberal arts degree. We don’t expect to offer an entrepreneurship major. On the contrary, we’re indifferent to a student’s major. We’d rather that a student explores his or her passion in depth, then minor in entrepreneurship to find purpose in that passion.
If the study of entrepreneurship benefits the liberal arts, we’re just as excited about the inverse. Entrepreneurship typically is seen through the lens of business and engineering schools. That’s understandable but short-sighted. If we want to make entrepreneurship a universal skill, we need to understand its best and highest meaning. Entrepreneurs are explorers, change agents and leaders. Entrepreneurship is not just about business and engineering. It’s about philosophy, mathematics, language, religion, drama, history, music, physics, chemistry and biology.
Where better to do that than a liberal arts university?
• Mike Panesis is the executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at California Lutheran Universty.