What Liberal Arts Education Misses

I’m a big fan of liberal arts education.  Not in the classical sense of churning out dutiful citizen soldiers, but in the modern sense of a broad exploration into the humanities rather than a narrow vocational specialization.

The dichotomy between learning for “work” and learning “for its own sake” is ridiculous.  All meaningful learning has an end desired by the learner, whether to have fun or gain knowledge that helps earn money or both.  Liberal arts education is incredibly valuable as a tool to sharpen thinking and broaden the mind.  Despite all the names given to the disciplines therein, it all really boils down to the master discipline of philosophy.  Philosophy is valuable if for no other reason than that we all have a philosophy whether we want to or not.  It’s either examined or unexamined, and we are better at achieving our goals and ends if we examine our philosophy.

Still liberal arts education has a huge, gaping hole.  It’s not that it doesn’t teach enough hard skills or vocational specialization.  One could argue those are something that could be learned on top of a liberal arts foundation for those who want to master a particular skill.  Yet it is true that liberal arts education often makes it hard for individuals to bridge this gap between general critical thinking and particular ways they might apply it to create a meaningful life and career.  The missing piece is something a little more concrete than liberal arts but a little more abstract than vocational skill.  It’s an understanding of value creation.

Value creation is the only thing that matters when it comes to involvement in commercial life.  This is where philosophy meets action.  This is where theory meets practice.  An entirely pragmatic practitioner who only performs tasks may find herself flustered with limited career options just as easily as an abstract theorist who doesn’t know how to concretely practice his ideas.  The pragmatist misses the fact that it’s not just getting your hands dirty that brings career success, but creating value for others, which may or may not correlate to how many hours you work or how much you master a particular skill.  The theorist misses the fact that all the clear thinking in the world about the nature of people and the universe won’t put bread on the table unless they can translate it into something of value to others and exchange with them.

A truly powerful liberal arts education would include learning value creation.  What it is, and more importantly, how to do it.  The thing about value creation that differs from other things learned studying liberal arts is that it cannot be learned by intellectual examination alone.  You have to do it.  You have to enter the messy marketplace and bump into other humans with unique goals and desires and find a way to bring something of value to exchange.  If philosophy begins with ‘know thyself’ then working for pay is one of the most philosophical activities possible.  Getting others to voluntarily part with their resources because you can create something they value more will reveal more than you can imagine about yourself, your desires, habits, and unknown abilities you never would have guessed are valued by others.

It shouldn’t stop with merely performing the action.  Reflection and dissection of what’s happening will take you to the next level.  All the best entrepreneurs are deeply philosophical people.  They don’t merely work and try stuff and suddenly get lucky when people value something they created.  The analyze why, how it might be made better, what fundamental causes brought about success, etc.  They get to know whether their key value was the big idea, the management and execution, the network of talent, the sales job, or some combination.  This allows them to replicate success by focusing on the areas with highest return.

Philosophy is known for thought experiments, but the market is where its field experiments take place.  The most powerful liberal arts education is one that includes the study and practice of value creation.  This could mean digging into ideas in the humanities while simultaneously working at a company and trying to make it and yourself more money, not just as a practical but a philosophical exercise.  I’ve never understood people who’ve studied for decades but never entered the marketplace to exchange.  Perhaps it’s a carry-over from the Greek’s high-minded condescension towards merchants, but an attitude that treats value creation as beneath contemplation is impractical and illogical.

This passion for theory and big ideas and liberal arts combined with the thrill of value creation in the marketplace is what animates Praxis and what gets me up and working every day.  I’ve gotten to the point where I do not have any way to distinguish work from study.  In the office I’m as likely to be reading Seneca as going over an expense report.  I see both as equally important for my long term success and happiness.

We don’t need Plato’s philosopher kings.  The worst thing is to confer the use of force upon smart people who leave the production to others.  We could use more philosopher merchants who constantly examine themselves and seek to understand the world while testing their ideas in the voluntary marketplace of goods and services; who imagine a better world and then go out and create it themselves.

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