The Liberal Arts: A Risky Business?

04/03/2017 03:18 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2017

To truly grasp the future of the liberal arts, consider the events of the early 1600s.

That’s when a revolutionary scholar forever changed the public perception of science. Unapologetic in his pursuit of new knowledge and destined to a life of house arrest, the embattled astronomer fought the Inquisition — and, in doing so, become the father of modern science.

Galileo was a gifted scientist, but perhaps his greatest legacy was his ability to impart his scientific understanding to the common man. Rene Descartes, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin were no doubt as profound. History may remember them as pioneers, the progenitors of contemporary knowledge, but therein lies a common misconception: it is not their finished work that matters the most. The telescope might be a celebrated discovery, but it is Galileo’s remarkably entrepreneurial journey from which today’s college students can learn the most.

Entrepreneurialism and the liberal arts have more in common than one might think: an element of risk. In fact, surprisingly, liberal arts colleges are hotbeds of both entrepreneurial thinking and of risk-taking itself. There’s a reason contemporary liberal arts core curricula are built upon the works of Galileo, Descartes and others like them. Although the names evoke the image of “dead white males” and a tedious undergraduate curriculum, these Renaissance thinkers were the forerunners of contemporary entrepreneurs. And beginning with their first courses at Ursinus, we challenge our students to act as Galileo did: to question dogma through the force of reason, and even to posit revolutionary ideas. That is the ultimate value proposition of the liberal arts.

There are some genuine risks in the liberal arts. It’s expensive, as parents can report. As disciplines accrete over centuries, the liberal arts may appear slow to change. And certainly, the liberal arts may appear less practical: the value of a history degree or a philosophy degree might seem more difficult to convey — at least on paper — than other, more popular degrees. Even President Obama’s off-handed remark about art history majors in 2014 drew national attention, as well as rightful criticism.

Yet, in many cases, it is today’s fastest-moving CEOs who rely on their liberal arts background to drive change and see opportunity: Susan Wojcicki of YouTube, for example, or John Mackey of Whole Foods. Every day, headlines in leading business publications site Silicon Valley giants who can’t recruit enough liberal arts students. Mark Cuban just spoke about this again, and a recent LinkedIn study reported as many as two in five liberal arts graduates now work at an Internet or software company.

In short: these are the ground-breakers and the idea generators of tomorrow’s workforce.

The authors of this column are two rather unconventional choices to lead a small, private, liberal arts college. One is the president of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, which represents thousands of businesses, the other a scholar in the economics of terrorism and the previous dean of a prestigious graduate program in finance. Yet both of us are graduates of the liberal arts, and both of us have children who have similarly pursued the liberal arts. And here’s why: Risk-taking emboldens students, as it does entrepreneurs, to innovate and to achieve, to create opportunities and learn from failure. The ability to think broadly and critically, to communicate clearly, and to identify and solve problems thoughtfully, makes good business leaders stand out and tackle risk head-on. Those are the very skills a liberal arts institution strives to impart.

With the public’s misunderstanding of the impact of the traditional humanities, and only 60 percent of college students nationwide graduating within six years, it’s easy to view the rise of pure entrepreneurial programs as a solution to the isolation of academia from the “real world,” a burst of fresh air in an ailing higher education landscape. After all, nearly 400,000 U.S. college students take classes on entrepreneurship each year.

But entrepreneurship isn’t about business acumen or start-up ventures, though many of our students find success in both. The deep reflection and conscious study of the liberal arts tradition can inform the curiosity, innovation, and persistence of today’s entrepreneur. It’s why one-third of Fortune 500 CEOs have degrees in the liberal arts. It’s why 14 percent of MacArthur Genius Grant recipients are graduates of private liberal arts institutions. Just as the liberal arts requires risk, entrepreneurship demands reflection; neither is complete without the other.

The liberal arts may indeed be risky business, but these are risks we must afford to take. It’s what Galileo would have recommended.

This piece was co-authored by Brock Blomberg, president of Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., and Robert C. Wonderling, chair of the Ursinus College Board of Trustees and president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

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