The Colgate Scene
September 2003

The aim of the liberal arts

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

As a high school student in the late 1950s, I was advised to take a college degree in the liberal arts as the surest path to a meaningful life and fulfilling career. During my freshman year at a liberal-arts college, I read widely, took every English course I could, wrote poetry and kept a diary. I wasn't worried about getting a job. All I wanted to do was come to grips with the truth of life as expressed by great authors.

When it came time for graduation, I decided to continue my literary education by getting a masters degree in creative writing. A year later, I had a degree and a teaching position at a liberal arts college. For the next 20 years, having earned my Ph.D., I spent most of my working life as an English professor, instructing students in the value of literature and the importance of language.

Then, everything changed for me in 1989, when I accepted my brother's invitation to join him in the management of our family manufacturing business. What qualified me to enter this world? Apart from my last name and the gleanings of family conversations over the years, not much.

But I had been telling students for years that the best preparation for a career was study in the liberal arts -- particularly English literature. I had cited the fact that most people change their jobs at least five times during their lives and that, for this reason, a general education was better than a specific or technical education. I had told students that most employers preferred to train their employees on the job; they wanted to recruit individuals who could think clearly, organize tasks and communicate effectively. I had told students that the study of novels and lyric poetry, short stories and drama was a proven path toward a clear mind and an orderly spirit -- that they could do no better than to take these skills into the real world of work. But was I right?

As soon as I found myself sitting behind a large mahogany desk in a tufted leather executive's chair, I quickly came face to face with an unsettling realization: I truly did not know where I was, what I was hearing or what I was seeing. This was particularly unnerving because of the prominence of my position: I was an officer of a major office-products company with a presumed role in shaping its future. I possessed the respect of peers without having earned it.

Everyone is local
I turned to an old lesson from academe. When you don't understand, start asking questions. I began reading our company the way I had been trained to read literature -- not just for the story, but rather for the underlying structure where I knew the real meaning lay. If I lacked firsthand knowledge, I found I could work with inferences. I tried to assess the motivations of the people with whom I was working as if they were characters in a novel. I tried to understand their strengths and limitations, to learn when to listen and when to discount what I heard.

This was not an intellectual pastime but a practical necessity. Every time I found myself involved with a problem, I immediately received conflicting, authoritatively delivered accounts of what was happening and why from individuals in a better position than I to understand the problem. Knowing on whose opinion I could depend, and how far, was an early survival skill in the corporate organization.

At the same time, I made an arresting discovery about life in organizations. For most of my academic

career I had been an independent contractor. Entering the business world, I began to appreciate that most of the world's work is not done by individuals, but rather by organizations, with individuals complexly interacting and fractionally contributing to the completion of shared tasks.

This modus operandi of organizations poses a disturbing challenge to everyone from the chief executive officer to the employee hired yesterday. To be blunt, no one really knows what's going on. No one can see wide enough or deep enough into the organization to understand the whole. Everyone has just a piece of the picture in his or her hands. Business opportunities require rapid decision making, often more intuitive than reasoned and almost always based on lofty summaries, undigested opinions and dramatically related anecdotes. Of course, professors also work with incomplete information, but in most cases, they enjoy the privilege of the resident expert and may forget -- at least I did -- how uncertain a basis their reasoned arguments may have. Entering the business world, I was shocked by the spontaneity of decision making.

Gradually, I noticed a peculiar thing. The organization was consuming an enormous amount of time and energy in communicating with itself. It wasn't just me; everybody was spending better than half of their time relating what they had seen or heard in various parts of the company or in the marketplace. We were continuously talking to ourselves, 24 hours a day from 10 locations around the world.

In global organizations, no one has the privilege of a global location: Everyone is local. In such an environment, everyone needs to be talking to everyone all the time to share observations, to try to grasp a fleeting picture of the whole before making decisions.

Moral understanding
In entering this global conversation, I found myself falling back on my education in English. I needed words, carefully chosen and arranged, in order to help others understand what I had observed and the conclusions I was drawing. I also needed the rhetorical skills I had absorbed in studying literature. To overcome the skeptical and to mobilize the indifferent, I required language in which emotional appeals were embedded. If it is nothing else, the world of business is a world of action, and human nature being what it is, people must be stirred in order to act. A vision of the future must be summoned, the thrill of victory must be evoked, the corporate will must be aroused if a business is to prevail against competition. Strangely, I found myself writing far more than I had ever done as a professor of English.

The study of the liberal arts, however, offers more than training in the skills of critical thinking and effective communication. Study of the liberal arts can lead to moral understandings that are invaluable to success in whatever one attempts in life.

When morality and business are brought up today in the same sentence, one hears about recent corporate scandals or about the policies of business toward the environment, the rights of consumers, employees, shareholders or other groups from the surrounding community. But in holding corporations to account, we sometimes forget to talk about individuals. We become absorbed in the ethical crises besetting institutions and overlook the sad and humble truth that most of us, as Tolstoy observed, are in a better position to improve ourselves than to reform society.

Business continually tests the character of individuals. Does one have the self-discipline to control the human predisposition toward selfishness? Indeed, does one recognize that selfishness is a moral problem that we are presented with as human beings, or does one look upon selfishness as a powerful spur to business success and an attribute of the successful? Does one have the courage to tell the truth, or does one put greater confidence in the ability to manage the truth? Has one taken possession of the mysterious gift of empathy, such that one has some notion of what it might mean to

be fair -- such that one resists the pleasures of caricaturing others and indulging personal biases, of persecuting the weak and championing the strong, of disparaging what is foreign, and, in countless other ways, of disadvantaging others in order to try to feel better about oneself?

To its apologists, capitalism is a system based on individuals and companies of individuals pursuing self-interest and, in so doing, unintentionally serving the common good. The exceptions to this generalization loom large today. Examples of the system rewarding enterprising self-centeredness to the disadvantage of society are, in fact, commonplace. Still, capitalism has not succeeded in overruling the moral laws of life. Unless there is mutuality of opportunity, business success falters, and most successful businesspeople, in my experience, instinctively understand this.

Coming from the academic world with certain prejudices about profit-making organizations, I was surprised and genuinely intrigued to discover this. I had not expected self-interest to be so consciously enlightened. But mutuality is a moral prerequisite for business activity. Unless shared interest can be discovered and regularly honored between customer and supplier, employer and employee, manufacturer and consumer, management and shareholders, the business goes sour. The economic circuit is broken.

In the recent scandals, the law is moving to punish those who have acted unlawfully, but the marketplace is exacting its own punishment -- imposing, arguably, a higher standard. For law breaking, executives can be jailed, but it only takes the taint of unethical behavior for whole corporations to be devoured, their economic and social value cut in half or reduced to zero.

What does a liberal education have to say about character and the ethical testing that life presents at every turn? For me the answer lies in the epic accounts of Homer and Spenser, in the comedies of Shakespeare and Austen, in the narratives of Tolstoy and James. The great aim of the liberal arts, as I was told as a college freshman, is knowledge of oneself. There is no higher wisdom to which we can aspire, nor more useful knowledge that we can possess.

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle Review. Peter Fellowes '66 is president of Fellowes, a manufacturer of consumer-electronics accessories and office products.
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