NOTIONS Bruce Hetrick: Yes, Mama, it’s OK to let your baby study liberal arts

Bruce Hetrick is on vacation this week. In his absence,this column,which appeared on March 17, 2003, is being reprinted.

Last summer, an Indiana University English professor sent me an e-mail. It said that she and her colleagues were creating a new course called “Careers in English.” Its premise: One might do something with an English degree besides teach English.

As they planned their curriculum, the instructors searched for an appropriate textbook. When they couldn’t find one, they decided to create their own.

Before writing their text, the professors did some research. Among other things, they found a few alumni who had, in fact, used their English degrees for something besides teaching. They asked us what we do for a living, how our English degrees help and whether we’d choose the same major again.

Last week, in conjunction with this new course, I got to play professor for a day. In the morning, I counseled some undergraduate students, explaining how they might put their English degrees to work. In the afternoon, I talked with the firstever “Careers in English” class. In between, a professor and I led a discussion with faculty members on the role of words and wordsmiths in shaping organizational culture.

Prior to these presentations, I’d not spent a working moment in the past 20 years contemplating how my liberal-arts education had benefited my life, my career or my community. In hindsight, it’s done quite a lot.

Yet based on my advance reading and campus discussions, many liberal arts students, graduates and teachers would be hard-pressed to explain the practical benefits of liberal studies. And if they can’t explain it, most parents, potential students and employers can’t either.

To be sure, you’ll find plenty of papers by liberal-arts professors and college presidents on this topic. Many are defensive, their authors having been beaten down by parents, trustees and donors demanding high job-placement rates for graduates-or by colleagues in skillbased programs who boast of their graduates “doing” something instead of merely “being” something.

This pressure to “do” begins early. My 14-year-old sons came home from school the other day with a form. It sought parent volunteers for “The Real Deal Day: Demonstrating that a balance of knowledge creates balance in life.”

Organizers sought bankers, shoppers, brokers, cosmetologists, accountants, utility managers, child-care workers, real estate and insurance sales people, attorneys, car dealers, loan arrangers, financial planners, medical professionals, travel planners, fund raisers and entertainers.

“Teachers are also providing sessions about … learning how to be wise consumers and owning a car,” the form said.

Implied but not stated: A “balanced” life means learning some skill and buying stuff.

No wonder Marshall Gregory, a Butler University English professor, bemoans educational rhetoric that “generally pretends that the future is guaranteed, that progress is measured by grades and skills exclusively, and that making lots of money is an imperative somehow braided into the fabric of the universe itself.” As an alternative, Gregory believes that liberal education “is the pursuit of human excellence … not the pursuit of excellent salaries.”

But therein lies the rub. Whether liberal educators like it or not, parents and students who invest umpteen thousand dollars in a college education expect monetary as well as moral returns. Altruistic though a liberal education may be, they demand bang for the buck.

But ethics and profits need not be mutually exclusive ideals. As my friends at IUPUI like to say: “Why not both?”

At a conference last spring, I saw a quote from Dan Ciampa, an author and business consultant. “Ninety percent of the training leaders receive is technical,” it said, “Ninety percent of the challenges they encounter are adaptive.”

What’s more, we hear time and again how the workplace is changing so rapidly that we’ll all end up in multiple careers before we retire.

If these notions are true-and my experience says that they are-then all those skillsof-the-moment being taught on campus won’t last six months, let alone a lifetime.

So all you liberal arts majors, repeat after me (especially during job interviews and requests for raises):

“Through history, English, political science, philosophy, whatever, I’ve learned how to read between the lines. That’s invaluable in a business world in which too few people mean what they say or say what they mean.

“Through fiction, biography, essays and more, I’ve learned to see the world from other people’s perspectives. In diverse workplaces and neighborhoods, that’s critical to building consensus and inspiring participation.

“Through years of finding connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, I’ve learned to spot opportunities, organize them and shape them in a way others can follow. In a see-only-one-tree-at-atime forest, that’s a rare and valuable commodity.”

When I chose a liberal arts degree, I, too, heard all those “what-are-you-goingto-do-with-that?” snickers. Well, Mama, if your baby does liberal arts right, she can snicker right back at ’em-all the way to the bank.

Hetrick is president and creative director at Hetrick Communications Inc., a local public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.