In a recent Wall Street Journal column titled “How to Get a Real Education in College,” Scott Adams poses the provocative question: Why are students learning fluffy subjects they won’t need — like art history, classics and calculus — instead of learning “something useful, like entrepreneurship?”
In the article, Adams details his entrepreneurial experiences during college, such as revitalizing a student-run coffee shop and convincing the administration to pay him to start a student government. Clearly, Adam was entrepreneurial, as he proactively searched for opportunities and took advantage of them. The skills he learned in college undoubtedly helped him create his successful business, Dilbert comics. So it makes sense that he believes students should learn similar skills so they can also succeed in the work place.
His column received mixed reviews. People in the Bill Gates camp agreed, following the belief that education should be measured by how many jobs it produces. Meanwhile those in the Steve Jobs camp disagreed, since they view liberal arts as the foundation for innovation (and that’s why the Mac is better than PC).
Two weeks ago, a few friends of mine emailed Scott Adams’ column to me, certain that I’d agree with his viewpoints due to my work with 1,000 Voices — a campus movement for entrepreneurial education. My friends were mistaken. While Adams and I may use the same term, e.g. entrepreneurial education, we mean fundamentally different things by it.
In my opinion, narrowly focusing on professional skills while abandoning liberal arts values is, in fact, counterintuitive to his goal: to create entrepreneurial agents who can succeed in the workplace.
A comprehensive liberal arts education is at the very foundation of entrepreneurial education.
In a Businessweek column titled, “Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities”, Amos Shapira, CEO of Cellcom supports my claim: “The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks …The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy.”
The column continues: “Any great work of art — whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual — challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems”
Jim Collins, business author, believes that business executives should read fewer management books. He says that only one in 20 books read should be about business, and that the rest should be about subjects like psychology, history and classic literature.
In other words, art history and other liberal arts courses aren’t important merely to “remember what art looked like,” as Adams suggests. According to Collins, they’re important because those who study literature or art have learned to apply liberal arts skills to “difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”
But Adams doesn’t see that. He fails to understand that the skills gained in liberal arts classes transfer into the work place. In addition to learning through direct experiences, courses can develop practical skills. The cultivation of our imagination helps us innovate new products. The analysis of literature develops the empathetic abilities needed to work effectively in groups. The dissecting of arguments improves our persuasion abilities.
But of course, these skills can’t solely be developed in the classroom. Courses need to be supplemented by experience. But just as important, experience isn’t enough on its own. It needs a liberal arts foundation.
In other words, students shouldn’t study just classic literature or business basics. They shouldn’t choose between personal and professional development. They should choose both.
But Adams makes another mistake, this time in what he doesn’t say. He implies that the whole point of college is to learn “something useful.” But in addition to learning how to make a living, students are also learning how to live a fulfilling life. College isn’t only preparing future doctors, politicians and businessman. It’s also preparing future parents, mentors and community leaders.
So no, I don’t entirely disagree with Adams’ column. He’s right in emphasizing that students should be more proactive and should seek the value behind what they’re learning. But he misunderstands the value of liberal arts courses and ignores one major reason why we attend college in the first place: to grow and develop as individuals.
A combination of engaged learning, textual analysis and deliberate reflection that aims to reconcile personal and professional development is what we should mean by entrepreneurial education. That’s a new and exciting conversation about education that people need to participate in.