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A Liberal Arts Infusion Pays Off

When I left Illinois State University for a post at Bentley University three years ago, it raised a few eyebrows among the liberal-arts colleagues I was leaving behind and at the business university where I would become their dean of arts and sciences.

I left because I was frustrated that students — even those who were able to get jobs doing what they wanted to do — had very little practical sense about how to advance in their career paths. When you pursue a passion in the humanities or the arts or social sciences, you make a series of choices that cut off some options. A high salary can be among the sacrifices. And today, when parents and students invest so much in a college education, graduates need to be able to not only land a job, but build a career and a life worth living.

Talking about a return on the higher-ed investment may seem out of place for a linguistics scholar. But it is based on experience. I spent three decades living among the Pirahã people of the Amazon rain forest to inform groundbreaking linguistics research, and I value that. I also came to recognize that I wanted a higher standard of living. Becoming dean of arts and sciences was a way to have both, and we should be presenting similar opportunities to students.

Several managers have reported to me that people who are promoted the fastest majored in liberal arts; they get promoted at a faster rate than business majors. At Bentley, we want our students to be prepared to move up the ladder just as fast in a field that interests them. One solution: develop more powerful connections with the liberal arts. We fuse the arts and sciences into the business curriculum, and more importantly, we refuse to accept a false dichotomy that you can either follow your passion or take a job that doesn’t necessarily inspire but pays the bills. You really can do both, given the right kind of education. Some of the most successful scientists had other jobs. Many professional artists have jobs in business. But they’re not known for that; they’re known for their best-selling novels or other creative works.

The question is not about whether the liberal arts are relevant or what their value is. Liberal arts, like business and any other area of human endeavor, must continually evolve and avoid falling into a static position that threatens its relevance and survival.

There are many practical combinations of professional abilities and experience with the arts, humanities and social sciences. We should educate students in exactly that way. Students should be able to, for example, complete a degree in English and Media Studies with a double major in Business Studies.

We’re experimenting with combinations that people haven’t seen before, including six-credit “fusion” courses co-taught by business and arts and sciences faculty. Combinations include a management course (Interpersonal Relations in Management) with an English course (Women and Film) to explore how women are perceived in film and how this can affect management styles. We’ll pair a global studies course (U.S. Government and Politics) with an economics course (Macroeconomics) to teach how politics and economics work together and to demonstrate that understanding both is often essential to doing either one well.

These kinds of courses break new ground for an educational model that may help liberal arts schools survive. And it doesn’t have to be only business and the arts and sciences. It could be history and chemistry or other kinds of cross-disciplinary experiences.

One of the problems in higher education is that educational models are so discipline-specific that students approach education like a Chinese restaurant menu: a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B. By design, students are not getting a curriculum that integrates their knowledge.

Liberal-arts colleges and universities challenge students to open their minds to new ways of thinking. Now is the time for college and university administrators and faculty to broaden their own thinking across boundaries. Embracing these new strategies will not only help them stay in business, but will give students what they need to earn a living while doing what they enjoy. To survive — and even thrive.

Daniel L. Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, MA.

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