How the Liberal Arts Thrive in the Business World

Bridging the Gap panel

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In an era when algorithms and big data influence our most important business and political decisions, an era in which the value of the liberal arts as an area of study gets consistently downgraded in favor of data-based, career-safe STEM fields, the Graham School’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program hosted an evening dedicated to how creative thinking in the liberal arts tradition continues to serve as the mainspring for the innovations and changes taking place in the business world today.

With introductory remarks by Fred W. Beuttler, associate dean of the Graham School’s Liberal Arts Programs, “Bridging the Gap: The Power of Liberal Arts in the Age of the Algorithm” featured a keynote presentation by Christian Madsbjerg, author of Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm and founder of ReD Associates, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Mark Miller, Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago and MLA Instructor, with prominent members of the Chicago business community.

“Everything is not incorporated into the zeros and ones,” Beuttler stated in his opening remarks, which took substantive steps in defining the liberal arts and understanding their role in the world today. Quoting University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins, Beuttler noted that, “the liberal arts connect all fields and allow the specialist to understand anything of import in any field.”

Setting the ground for Madsbjerg’s presentation, Beuttler further noted that the liberal arts provide not only individuals, but businesses as well, with the tools to understand practices and systems outside of themselves. This sort of empathetic thinking, he noted, “is not a soft sentiment but a hard skill that must be cultivated and practiced.”

Madsbjerg is director of client relations and focuses on developing methodologies to study human behavior at ReD Associates, a strategy consulting firm that uses liberal arts knowledge to provide clients with insight into complex business problems. The author of books on social theory, discourse analysis, and politics, he argues in Sensemaking, published in March 2017, that despite living at a time already called the “age of the algorithm,” the key to many of today’s most significant business success stories lies in a deeply contextual engagement with aspects of culture and language outside the reach of any algorithm.

“From my experience working with major corporations,” Madsbjerg writes in “Silicon Valley needs to get schooled,” one of his recent articles, “I would say that technological advancements are only half of the picture. Knowing how to build things is great, but if you have no idea for whom you’re building them—how these inventions will connect with people’s aspirations and challenges—you will fail, no matter how many coding geniuses and data scientists you employ.”

Drawing on insights from a variety of liberal arts fields, including anthropology, art, sociology, and history, during his presentation at the Gleacher Center on May 31, Madsbjerg highlighted instances from the contemporary world in which a type of thinking he referred to as “culturally intersubjective” holds sway. Exemplified by such abilities as being able to feel the dynamic at play in a room or understand the mood of a nation, he noted a common quality possessed by all people with a generous apportioning of this capacity: they are all readers, he said, with broad curiosities and a wide base of knowledge.

“And while a liberal arts degree isn’t required for this type of ability,” he added, “it happens that most people who can think in this manner do have one. In America today,” he noted, “we’re stripping away context and not putting it back together, and I think there’s a great need in corporations to have people who know how to do this. When it happens, it is intensely successful.”

In the lively panel discussion that followed, Associate Professor Miller focused on each of the panelists’ experiences with the liberal arts and the perspectives they gained during their careers on its value and use when applied to business problems.

David Kalt, over the course of a career spent starting and growing three businesses—including, most recently, Reverb.com—stated that he found it to be much easier to teach someone how to code who has a liberal arts background than to train a computer scientist how to think humanistically.

“Having hired hundreds of software developers over my career,” Kalt said, “I have found that the best software engineers, the best leaders, the most creative types are all liberal arts educated.” He added that his chief operating officer at Reverb, who manages 50 engineers, earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago.

Jan Perrino, founder of Perrino & Associates and former director of global McDonald’s business for Campbell’s and SunOpta as well as an alumna of the MLA program, voiced agreement with Kalt, calling the skills she learned in the MLA program “very translatable.” She continued, “I signed up for the program planning to indulge myself, but the indulgence, to my surprise, turned into a very practical pursuit that directly applied to my career.”

A managing director at Morningstar, Don Phillips focused his comments on the long term skills gained through liberal arts learning. “They’re skills that shine over a long period of time,” he said, reflecting on the value he found in his own MA in English literature from the University of Chicago.

“The concepts behind finance aren’t too difficult,” Phillips noted. “We can teach the math, but we can’t teach you empathy and writing skills.” He went on to describe the sort of organization in which an individual with a liberal arts background might come to shine, identifying small size and limited hierarchies as characteristics that allow the talent and insight gained from a liberal arts background to grow and thrive over time.

When asked about recent studies that suggest up to half the workforce may be automated in the next 20 to 30 years, John Wasik, an award-winning journalist and author of 17 books, including Lightning Strikes: Timeless Lessons in Creativity from the Life and Work of Nikola Tesla, noted the growing need to know how to improvise and adapt in today’s world.

“How do we deal with jobs disappearing like that?” Wasik asked. “One of the answers is to discover the human skills and attributes that show us what we need to know about the world that machines can’t do. It’s the liberal arts that gives us this foundation.”

With eyes and minds now focused on this foundation, the evening concluded with an opportunity for those present to mingle, network, and explore the ways in which the liberal arts bridge this gap emerging in the age of the algorithm—a pursuit certainly befitting words once written by Robert Maynard Hutchins, who exhorted us all, “to be as good liberal artists as we can in order to become as fully human as we can.”

Learn more about the Master of Liberal Arts program.