Are the liberal arts dead? Hardly!
It is a breadth of thinking, combined with mental agility, that is the hallmark of the true liberal arts graduate.
In December, the Globe and Mail named Michael Medline––“the saviour of Sobeys”––Canadian CEO of the year, for leading a turnaround at one of Canada’s iconic companies. A few weeks later, Dave Nugent, President of white-hot fintech firm Wealth Simple, made headlines with the company’s launch of a new mutual fund investment firm. In between these two events, I met with Suzanne Fleming, Head of Marketing and Communications at Brookfield Asset Management in Manhattan, just as Brookfield announced a new deal that made it the largest commercial real estate owner in New York City, while managing around $330 billion of assets globally. What connects Michael Medline, Dave Nugent, and Suzanne Fleming, three tremendously successful business people in very diverse industries, is that they all received their undergraduate education in the liberal arts at Huron University in London Ontario.
It is often said that the value of a liberal arts education rests on its ability to train students in critical thinking. This is, at best, a partial truth. Actually, many types of post-secondary education stress critical thinking, a term that is itself somewhat vague. Business, law, and the study of the natural sciences, are just a few of the many fields that encourage, even require, students to ask critical questions and to challenge assumptions.
So, what is it about a liberal arts education that enables people like Michael Medline, Dave Nugent, and Suzanne Fleming (not to mention other former Huron students, like Galen Weston and Melinda Rogers), to succeed in fields that appear to be unconnected to their undergraduate fields of study?
The answer is multi-faceted. Learning how to think critically about a historical event, for example, and then cogently explain in writing your reasoning is a very unique skill. So too is the ability to change mental gears as you move from your third-year Economics class to your Philosophy class across the hall. Learning how to closely read a piece of literature in order to dive well below the surface of what is being said develops a very useful habit of mind. Learning a second language, coming to understand global issues, gaining insight into how politics operate – all serve to create a well-rounded base of knowledge. These sorts of experiences, which are the routine activities of liberal arts students, impart a very particular set of skills in those students, even if they are not conscious at the time of what habits are being developed in their minds. It is a breadth of thinking, combined with mental agility, that is the hallmark of the true liberal arts graduate. When these “soft” skills are combined with the ability to read closely, speak and write with precision and clarity, and find answers that are not readily obvious, we can see how this kind of education provides a unique and outstanding foundation for success in an endless number of careers.
No one would argue that a liberal arts education alone is sufficient to guarantee future job success. Opportunities, hard work, salesmanship, networking, and a host of other attributes go into the mix. But my point is that the kinds of skills and the form of education that are delivered in the liberal arts offer a tremendous package that can, and does, provide a foundation for success at the highest levels in the world of business, and many other fields.
A tired trope that has been around for ages, yet still resurfaces from time to time, is that a liberal arts education is of no value in the “real world” or in the job market. Tell that to Sobeys, Wealth Simple, Brookfield Asset Management, Loblaws, Rogers Communications, or the countless other companies headed by liberal arts grads!
Dr. Barry Craig, President