Is There A Tension Between Humanities and Professional Degrees?

I love teaching a profession within a liberal arts environment. As I have stated before it is a marriage made in heaven. Scott Samuelson, who teaches at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, wrote an editorial in today’s paper about how “studying humanities may not be such a bad career move after all.” He was responding to findings released in January by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Samuelson stated that the report “found that at peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields.” I won’t dispute this statement because I have not seen the analysis or the original census data. However, I am curious that when Samuelson says these individuals majored in these areas of studies, were there minors involved?

I do agree with Samuelson when he argues that companies are hiring graduates who can “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” And I do believe these are skills that are supported by humanities classes. However, if I were him, I would not assume that professional programs do not teach those skills. Strategic Management courses require business students to think critically and solve problems creatively.

I would also disagree with Samuelson when he stated, “How many parents are going to pay for their kids to take Ethical Theory so that they can perform better at Goldman Sachs.” I would argue that if there aren’t that many parents that want their children to study Kant, Bentham, or Macintyre then they need to change their minds. As we have seen in recent history, those individuals at Goldman Sachs need to perform at a higher ethical level.

I do agree with Samuelson when he said that “thinking of the value of the humanities predominantly in terms of earnings and employment is to miss the point.” Freedom, democracy, and innovation go hand in hand. The liberal arts make our students aware of the bigger issues of life than just making money. The various topics typically associated with the Humanities expose our students minds to the ideas of the past that have improved human life.

In recent history we have seen the problems that unethical business can unleash on society, thus I think it is critical that business students are required to study humanities, specifically philosophy and ethics. The typical business student needs to see the bigger picture. They need to be exposed to and study right and wrong, the various human actions and their impact on history, and the importance of scientific systems. To ignore these elements to pursue greater profit is a travesty.

In fact, if I were hiring people for important positions in an organization I would want them to have the technical skills required to do the job, but I would also want them to have character that comes from reading the Bible, Plato, and other philosophical writings, and I would want them to have a sense of humanity that comes from studying Psychology, Sociology, or other social science courses.

I want balanced human beings working for me, not some cocky individual who thinks they can make a million bucks by the time they turn 25. Maybe I am wrong, but I’d rather be wrong like this, than having the sense that studying humanities is counter productive to good business practices.

So in answer to Scott Samuelson’s question, “Would you hire Socrates?” I would say it depends. It he has the skill to do the job, and he can communicate, think, and solve complex problems, then yes I would hire him. To answer my question about a tension between humanities and professional studies; nope – there is no tension, just a marriage made in heaven.

And that is my thought for the day!


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