Desert Companion

Thought leaders: The power of a liberal education

Jim Murren, Carol Harter and Glenn Schaeffer have a secret to success.
MBAs and specialized smarts?
No, liberal arts backgrounds and vigorous minds

I never took a journalism class. (The easy response among my critics: “Obviously.”)

I say that proudly, though, and occasionally have gotten myself into trouble questioning why my colleagues would spend money on a journalism degree. I jokingly ask, What do they teach you? Lesson one: Go talk to people about what happened. Lesson two: Write it down. Lesson three: Get better at it.

My own undergraduate course of study sounds a little ridiculous when I explain it. It was called the Program of Liberal Studies, or “Great Books.” We started with Homer and went from there, covering many of the important works by dead thinkers and poets. We struggled through abstruse philosophy and learned how to argue effectively. We learned the techniques that turn mere words into poetry. We watched scientific errors of the ancient natural philosophers evolve into the modern scientific method. We read, we thought, we talked and we wrote. In short, we learned how to learn.

I can hardly think of a better preparation for a journalist. On any given day, I might have to develop a modicum of expertise on a legal issue, macroeconomic policy, education reform measure or environmental disaster. Read about it, talk to people affected and to the experts, and then write clearly, quickly and accurately. Always be ethical — and skeptical — and don’t be afraid to call out the truth when you find it. To the extent I can do the job, I give major props to my old professors, who gave me the rich raw materials, which in turn were mined out of Plato, Shakespeare and David Hume, among many others.

Support comes from

I’m not the only one who thinks this intellectual challenge is the best preparation for any  career.

“I’m a huge proponent of a liberal arts education,” says Jim Murren, the CEO of MGM Resorts International. He was an art history major at Trinity College in Connecticut.

I’ll get to his defense of the liberal arts in a moment, but let me explain why it matters.

 

Art attack

The classical liberal arts, broadly defined as a mix of literature and the arts, philosophy and history, foreign languages, math and science, are in a bad way. They are dismissed by certain lefty academic fads, by technocratic armies of economic development specialists, and now by a new wave of anti-college activists including tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel. The liberal arts, it seems, have few defenders. Especially in Nevada.

The debate over higher education funding last year was a depressing exercise, with one side arguing against higher ed altogether, and the other arguing that we must train our young people how to count to 21 so they can get jobs. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.

Christopher Hudgins, the dean of the UNLV College of Liberal Arts, has the southern drawl of a great storyteller and, somewhat incongruously, is a leading scholar of the playwright Harold Pinter. He’s at the forefront of the fight on behalf of the liberal arts. Why the attack on his college?

“On the surface, (liberal arts) don’t seem to be pragmatic,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to immediately solve the problem of economic diversity and a job path for students. But that’s very, very shortsighted. If we produce job-oriented students only, we’re dead in the water.”

What he means is that graduates who are educated — those who can think critically, clearly and creatively — will anticipate, adapt to and hopefully even exploit economic change. Students who are merely trained in a narrow skill? They could get left behind if their skill becomes extinct when the economy changes. Which is always.

 

Gray matter areas

As a thought experiment, let’s dismiss the airier benefits of a liberal arts education — all the stuff about an examined life being the only kind worth living, about enlightened citizenship or our obligation to pursue the good, the true and the beautiful. Instead, let’s just focus on who is better off in the business world: Jim Murren with his art history degree from Trinity, or someone who skates through a mediocre undergraduate business program with a degree in marketing or management?

Here’s Glenn Schaeffer, former Mandalay Resort Group president and a graduate of the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, with an answer: “The notion that you can be credentialed, that an MBA would credential you as a business leader? It can’t be credentialed.” The title of business leader is earned, he says. And to get there, certain attributes are essential — the very attributes transmitted by the liberal arts.

Murren says the rigorous research and writing of his undergraduate days gave him a leg-up when he became a Wall Street analyst because he was already well versed in what’s known as the “Mosaic Principle” — taking bits of information from disparate sources, separating the credible from the less so, and creating an intelligible narrative about a company or industry.

“I enjoyed the information-gathering process,” he says. “Trinity helped me form a foundation which was enhanced on Wall Street.” Now he thirsts for information and people who know how to gather it and use it. “Information — the value of it, the speed you can get it, the way you use it — will determine success.” By this he means understanding customer preferences, global supply chains, price elasticity, interest rate complexities and other factors.

Schaeffer tells me that with his close reading of difficult literature and criticism, he developed the habits of mind that helped him understand companies, markets and his industry.

Murren says the liberal arts broadened his perspective. In Italy during a study abroad program, Murren learned that the rest of the world views things differently than we do — a valuable skill in a business that is increasingly international, with customers, employees and emerging markets around the globe.
Murren also says access to this wide diversity of thought nurtured creativity, an absolutely essential trait for entrepreneurs and Strip marketers trying to lure customers. He looks for creativity among his senior management, he says.

Schaeffer says creativity is at a premium among potential executives.

“One thing you’re in short supply of is imagination,” says Schaeffer, who recently co-wrote a memoir of his years in Iowa, “We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”

“What makes businesses grow are new ideas and people who have an appreciation for and experience in generating ideas. People asking, ‘What’s next?’”

 

Intelligent designs

If you think about it, many of the world’s great thinkers were creative, intellectual entrepreneurs. Although there’s a constant dialogue with the past and the assimilation of new arguments and data, intellectual breakthroughs have often been anything but incremental. Think of Copernicus, who completely re-framed how we view the world, in the face of massive resistance from a hardened consensus that the sun orbited the Earth.

Indeed, if we in Nevada want revolutionary business people, we should have our students study the history of science. The great ones were risky revolutionaries, as Thomas Kuhn points out in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

Fine, you say. But how does someone studying art history or philosophy or biology learn how to create a budget or manage people?

Carol Harter is currently executive director of the Black Mountain Institute and president emerita of UNLV after entering academia as a literature scholar. As she notes, she was running a half billion-dollar operation when she was president.

“It’s a big city. You’re building buildings. You’re feeding people. It’s a hugely diverse business you’re running.” With her strong foundation, she could learn the skills it took to manage a large organization. “You can learn technical things,” she says. “But not the fundamentals that come through a broad-based liberal education.”

Finally, I think we’re all a little tired of the business ethics scandal du jour, embodied in the recent housing crash, when dishonesty, graft and greed nearly exploded our economy.

Murren says the liberal arts at Trinity inculcated character traits he would not have developed elsewhere, beginning with the honor code. “It’s one of the first things you do, the code of conduct, and there’s a no tolerance policy. There could be no tolerance for cheating and cutting corners.”

Small classes and intense relationships with professors created strong bonds and trust between professors and students, between young and old. That tutelage “contributed to a strong sense of moral and ethical behavior,” Murren says.

Let’s not pretend the liberal arts will turn us into angels, but in my own experience, I used to wait tables and believed free food and drink were part of my salary. It was rationalized theft. By the time I graduated from college, I had stopped doing it. Maybe it was Kant’s categorical imperative whispering in my ear.  

I’ll argue with you all day long that a talented philosophy graduate will be far superior in the long run in any field to someone who has pursued what amounts to four years of vocational training.

But forgive me if I leave the pragmatic and lure you with the hope of immortality, the kind that Homer gave Achilles. For the most part, we won’t be remembered for our riches or our armies.

We’ll be remembered for our art and architecture, our scientific advances and our moral progress.

What kind of education will deliver on those hopes? 

J. Patrick Coolican is a Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly columnist. He has, in fact, read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason in its entirety.

 

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