Value, return and the liberal arts

A while ago, I completed an intensive technical certification program. The quality instructor guided a wide range of participants from recent college grads to seasoned folks like me through the designed curriculum. However, unlike 85 percent of the people in the room, I was one of a handful who were taking the class cold in the middle of my career rather than at the beginning. In other words, for the seasoned few our experience with the subject matter was different than most. We were not the configurers of systems, but rather leaders who defined the parameters that defined system decisions.

As expected, there were folks in the room who were focused on the what and how (and rightfully so as we needed to attain a competency), while several others (myself included) were also trying to wrap our heads around the why and when as that mattered more for our roles. We understood that designing and implementing a quality technical solution for anything requires the why and when for whom to be understood before diving into the what and how.

During my flight home, I thought about the mish-mash of understandings and experiences that get lumped into education and training, and reflected on a VentureBeat piece by Vivek Wadhwa about the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in our rapidly evolving technical world.

As a society, we tend to cluster complex things into broad categories for high-level discussion and reflection. Higher education, for example, has come to be an all-encompassing category of formal learning, which includes everything from educating the next generation of researchers and educators through to developing tomorrow’s leaders and a skilled post-industrial workforce.

While lumping different models of learning together into a tidy bucket is fine for social conversation, the fact of the matter is that “higher education” encompasses an incredibly diverse array of post-secondary learning opportunities tailored to specific learning and career outcomes that many do not understand. A research university is not the same as a technical college and yet most taxpayers do not appear to understand the difference. As a result, policies and laws are crafted with good intentions, but don’t necessarily take into account the variety and span of modern post-secondary education.

With public confidence in higher education in recent decline, I think it is safe to say that higher education in the US is at best misunderstood by a vast majority of individuals. Before the Reagan era, US higher education was largely understood as a public good. Since that time, the perception of higher education has shifted away from a civic pursuit that may have career implications to a job springboard that sometimes borders on career entitlement. While the latter existed in the 19th and 20th centuries along select career paths, the close coupling of higher education with job attainment as a whole has never been sharper than it is now.

The 1980s put into motion changes in funding that have significantly altered the dialogue around education as a whole. No longer do we think of value on investment (VOI) first; we’re primarily concerned with ROI and hard economics in a post-2008 world:

  • What job will I get after incurring a large debt to attend college?
  • What will be my return on investment for a specific degree or certification?
  • How will I clear my student loan debt?
  • If I can’t generate a suitable ROI within a certain number of years, then what’s the point of post-secondary learning and why should incur the debt in the first place?

Okay, the last bullet is a bit stark, but it is likely you’ve seen or heard similar rhetoric. Thoughts like these surface in interesting ways. Consider laws that have emerged over the last 15-20 years which tie funding of colleges to job placement of graduates within a defined period of time. That, I believe, reflects ROI-based thinking at social and most certainly, political levels.

As I see it, higher education involves both developing the skills to find answers (leading to ROI) but also the knowledge and wisdom to ask the right questions (surfacing VOI). Being able to effectively address problems involves more than acting on the what and how; it also requires knowledge of the why and when to figure out what is most appropriate for a given situation. To that end, today’s education VOI/ROI equation seems out of balance as we seem to be focusing more on short term return than longitudinal long term value.

Now you may think that I’ll play the experience card as I’ve already indicated that I’m “seasoned” but experience, while beneficial, is only as good as it can be applied. Surfacing value, like generating return, involves knowing which tools to apply to different situations and age has little to do with that. While fields such as engineering tackle the what and the how with myriad protocols, the liberal arts and humanities provide different tools to identify and understand the why behind issues and establish context for when to take appropriate action.

Much of the last 30 years has been driven by what and how thinking focused on return — doing something because one can for a degree of gain, not because one should when taken in a broader societal context. We have concentrated on finding answers to questions that were never asked and worse, have presumed to know outcomes before validating assumptions. The erosion of privacy triggered by the rise in the monetization social media is a perfect example of the what and the how eclipsing the why and when. We’re discovering that being primarily driven by return can have serious societal impacts on value and beyond.

Value on investment in education needs to reenter the equation for when we ignore the liberal arts and focus solely on return, we reduce our ability to ask questions and find ourselves repeating the mistakes of our past. In essence, without the humanities and liberal arts the what and how take priority over why, when and most importantly, for whom.


I encourage you to take a moment to read this piece by Vivek Wadhwa on VentureBeat entitled Liberal arts and humanities are as important as engineering.

Full disclosure, I was a career-focused young adult when I attended Loyola University New Orleans in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Barely understood by me as a first generation baccalaureate student far from home, the university offered a core liberal arts curriculum with all of its undergraduate programs of study. About a decade after graduation I realized that the what and how part of my education wasn’t driving my career success; it was the why and when for whom that I learned as part of the liberal arts curriculum.