The True Value of the Liberal Arts Practitioner

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

We have become a people of shortcuts.

For every challenge, there’s an app to address it; for every problem, a lifehack. The rapid proliferation and distribution of the Internet has fundamentally altered how we approach life’s challenges, adding a speed of efficiency we never could have dreamed of before. 

That efficiency, as more are beginning to realize, came at a cost. Much has been made about how we are changing our very brain chemistry through our use of the Internet, whether those behaviors include hyperlinks, scanning content, multimedia and, of course, social media. It seems our ability to multitask has made us all a little ADHD. 

The cure has become the disease, as fewer and fewer take the long road home anymore.

It’s not a genuine problem until we need to learn something which can’t be gained through a shortcut. Some things simply can’t be learned through shortcuts: to learn how to ride a bike, you need to get on it and gain muscle-memory. 

The discovery of what we are doing to ourselves is often found when we pick up something with more density, such as literature or philosophy. Our capacity to focus, read, and think about one topic for extended periods has been compromised by our daily use of apps, lifehacks, and other shortcuts. 

Another subject that can’t be learned through shortcuts? Humans.

The past culture and the minting of gold

Think back to a time before our modern technology. I’m not referring to just digital media: I mean further back, before light bulbs, television and radio (much less computers), to a time where books, crafts, and direct interaction were the only forms of entertainment. I know it’s horrifying, but bear with me for a moment.  

The first thing to note is that those generations did not have nearly the amount of distractions as we do now. You had a limited amount of time for any activity outside of the strenuous labor often required to earn a living (if you think cubicle work is grueling, try working in a factory, or on a farm without modern machinery). Whatever your choice of activity, each activity was given more focused attention over longer periods of time. This meant you learned to focus your attention, in ways not often required today.

For the thinker, this environment had a specific impact. Each idea worthy of expression was carefully constructed through much observation and analysis, all with little interference. This meant seeing the problem from many different angles and perceptions while constructing and deconstructing an argument many times, at a level of critical thinking often not required today. 

What is the value of a liberal arts education? It is quality control for the mind. 

The challenges didn’t end there. Editing one’s thoughts was a time-consuming process (can you even imagine writing before cut, copy, and paste?!). Writing and rewriting was costly, not only in terms of time, but also in terms of money: paper wasn’t as abundantly available as it is today.

The sum is that past thinkers did not have the luxury of revising their thoughts and words on the fly. Whereas we rely on instantaneous feedback for our ideas, past thinkers had to anticipate and address all potential challenges before disseminating an idea. If you were forced to wait for snail mail before making revisions, you would likely die before you completed your work.

What does this mean for us? The liberal arts student is forced to engage with the material at the pace by which it was created, not the pace of our modern world. You have to slow down, reading and thinking carefully as you do.

What is the value of a liberal arts education? It is quality control for the mind. 

Taking the long road

Besides checking assumptions, enlarging perspectives and creating better questions, this value also includes a single word: nuance.

Those who study the liberal arts, beyond the prerequisites decreasingly required at the undergraduate level, engage with material predating our modern world. That material elaborates on the complexity of the human condition, a complexity still with us today and observable by many.

A common breakthrough in one’s studies is the discovery that, although we are complex, that complexity is fundamentally unchanged, no matter how much technology has changed us and no matter how much technology changes us in the future.

Although uniquely experienced, that complexity can be broken down into universal themes, themes which form the connective tissue for both understanding ourselves and relating to others. 

An understanding of this connective tissue is lacking in our modern culture. A common breakthrough in one’s studies is the discovery that, although we are complex, that complexity is fundamentally unchanged, no matter how much technology has changed us and no matter how much technology changes us in the future

Or, as it is commonly said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Regardless of the ubiquitous nature of our technology, we will still seek such universal themes of companionship, love, self-worth, achievement, happiness, security, and belonging, all while avoiding death, guilt, shame, loneliness, and failure. Some (but not all) of these universal themes are the driving forces, not only for what we do, but for all that we will ever do. 

These themes are not easily categorized because they exist in gradients within each person. These gradients are the nuances found in the liberal arts, a vast storehouse of many different voices, all available for loan when filling in the picture of another person’s experience. The better your knowledge of these nuances, the better your questions, not just for understanding others, but for understanding entire cultures.

Which returns us to the overarching conversation regarding organizational culture. You can (and should) immerse yourself in alternative cultures. Yet, regardless of the scope of your experience, the full spectrum of these themes cannot be experienced in one lifetime. It is also not recommended, in light of the pain included with acquiring an understanding of these themes.

The liberal arts is dedicated to drawing out the common themes among all experiences, allowing us to relate to one another without having to frantically acquire all of the experiences necessary for comprehensive understanding. 

Which also brings us to the value of the practitioner. Unlike the student still learning, the practitioner applies this depth of understanding, building bridges of understanding while mediating conversations and relationships, all for the purpose of improving cultural awareness and competency.

Looking to improve your organizational culture? Make sure you hire someone who is a practitioner of the liberal arts.

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