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Investing in a Liberal Education

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Settling in to college life this fall, students seem to be following a drumbeat toward practical majors. An all-time high percentage of respondents to UCLA's annual survey of incoming college freshmen said that they are attending college in order to get a better job, make more money, and become well off financially.

Business is the most popular undergraduate major, probably because students see it as the best route to a career in finance, investing, and other wealth-generating fields. They might be surprised to hear the opinions of some successful investors about the education best suited to such professions.

Robert Hagstrom, author of The Warren Buffett Way and senior investment counsel for Legg Mason Investment Capital, advocates a liberal arts education. In his book Investing: The Last Liberal Art, Hagstrom describes a concept for effective money management developed by Charlie Munger, Buffett's partner and vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway.

Munger gave a lecture at USC's Marshall School of Business in which he discussed "stock picking as a subdivision of the art of worldly wisdom." He challenged students with the idea that their economics and finance are not isolated disciplines, but parts of a larger network of knowledge linked to physics, biology, social science, philosophy, literature, and mathematics. Munger introduced the metaphor of a "latticework of models" to describe the interlocking structure of ideas that supports real understanding. Investing is an extended development of that idea. How, Hagstrom asks, does one acquire worldly wisdom? By mastering an extensive latticework of disciplines rather than specializing early -- in short, by pursuing a liberal education.

Though liberal education still receives lip service, Hagstrom argues, current societal and financial pressures drive students to specialize -- a choice that leaves them with insufficient intellectual resources to connect diverse fields of knowledge. He explains how investment managers can improve their performance by studying seminal texts from the many disciplines mentioned by Munger, and he closes his book with an argument demonstrating how this sort of study can inform judgment and enhance the ability to make good decisions.

Hagstrom links his viewpoint to the decision-making model of Buffett and Munger:

"You will recall that both Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett stress the importance of understanding the fundamentals of a company -- the business model you invest in. And they mean real understanding, not mere data gathering; the sort of understanding that comes only from careful study and intelligent analysis. Thoughtfully choosing investments requires the same mental skills as thoughtfully reading a book.

"But what books, on what topics and in what order? How do we choose, and how can we be sure we are reading appropriately to make the ideas our own? Let us start by dropping in on a college campus."

Then Hagstrom describes the rich and varied curriculum at St. John's College, providing a list of books read and discussed by all students. These include the literary masterworks of Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Shakespeare, Cervantes and Milton, Austen and Eliot, Melville and Twain, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; the philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Bacon, Descartes and Hume, Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; the political writings of Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau and the American Framers, de Tocqueville and Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington; religious books such as the Bible and Augustine's Confessions, Dante's Divine Comedy and Calvin's Institutes; musical masterpieces by Palestrina and Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Wagner and Stravinsky; mathematical and scientific studies by Euclid and Ptolemy, Copernicus and Kepler, Galileo and Faraday, Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Mendel--and for those interested in economics, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx's Capital.

Hagstrom continues, "The art of achieving what Charlie Munger calls 'worldly wisdom' is a pursuit that appears to have more in common with the ancient and medieval periods than with contemporary studies, which mostly emphasize gaining specific knowledge in one particular field. No one would disagree that over the years we have increased our baskets of knowledge, but what is surely missing today is wisdom. Our institutions of higher learning may separate knowledge into categories, but wisdom is what unites them."

The separation of knowledge into categories frustrates the human desire for unity. Each of us is a student of the world, a whole individual trying to make integral sense of the world, and striving to make that world our own.

A liberal education challenges students to understand themselves and the world around them. If they rise to that challenge, then any specialized undertaking -- be it in business, finance, law, medicine, journalism, education, entertainment or the arts -- will be their last liberal art, the one that follows upon developing the worldly wisdom to choose wisely for oneself.

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly--not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion--with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu