Graham School Master of Liberal Arts to Host Panel Discussion on the Role of Liberal Artists in a Time of Big Data

MLA infografic brain with multiple icons floating around inside.

On Wednesday, May 31, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center, the Graham School’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program will host Christian Madsbjerg, author of Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm and founder of ReD Associates, who will give a presentation entitled “Bridging the Gap: The Power of the Liberal Arts in the Age of the Algorithm” focusing on his experience using the lessons of the liberal arts to solve commercial problems for companies such as Ford, Nike, and Adidas.

The presentation will lead into a panel discussion featuring Madsbjerg, Don Phillips, managing director at Morningstar, Jan Perrino, principal at Perrino & Associates and alumna of the MLA program, John Wasik, business columnist for Forbes and Bloomberg, David Kalt, the founder and CEO at, and Mark Miller, associate professor at the University of Chicago. Adult beverages and appetizers will follow, along with opportunities to network.

In a time already referred to as the age of the algorithm, when more and more businesses look to data for answers to their most pressing problems, it stands as a potentially surprising observation that businesses lack a sufficient grounding in the liberal arts. And yet with the iPhone now already a decade old and much of the present business landscape dominated by me-too products and copycat companies, there is the startling possibility that our current data-focused orientation has opened up a gap between our everyday business practices and the mainsprings of innovation and creativity essential to commercial flourishing. Have businesses, to their detriment, lost touch with the roots of human experience and knowledge in the liberal arts?

As Madsbjerg argues in his new book Sensemaking, an underappreciated key to many of today’s most significant business success stories involves a deeply nuanced engagement with aspects of culture and language lying outside the reach of any algorithm. More and more, he notes, companies are calling on workers with backgrounds in the liberal arts to bridge this gap between the copious quantities of data documenting their products’ use and the everyday contexts and situations that are at once so hard to capture in data and yet so critical to understanding the complete picture of their products’ role in the lives of consumers.

At the consulting firm ReD Associates, for instance, where Madsbjerg is a senior partner, graduates in philosophy, anthropology, and art history are hired to immerse themselves in the daily lives of companies where they use methodologies from the human sciences to understand and solve business problems containing high levels of complexity. As these areas of intractable complexity grow in the upcoming years and companies come to appreciate the value of this unquantifiable terrain complementing the age of the algorithm, the skills of liberal artists will become all the more essential to understanding and bridging this gap.

For 25 years, the MLA program has provided a comprehensive interdisciplinary education in the liberal arts to adults. In small classroom settings led by University of Chicago faculty, the program’s offerings range across the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and biological sciences, granting MLA graduates powerful tools with which to analyze and impact the world around them. Through lectures, readings, and engaging discussions, students study the works of the thinkers and writers whose impact on humanity’s relation to the fundamental questions continues to shape the world today.

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