Questioning the value of a liberal arts degree? Wall St. isn't
The following op-ed appeared in Penn Live on Friday.
The quote many Americans associate with Calvin Coolidge is, "The business of America is business."
He actually said, "After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life."
Coolidge's statement was part of a speech delivered to the Society of American Newspaper Editors on January 17, 1925.
In it, he emphasized the need to separate editorial and business leadership within a news organization while stressing the mutual importance of success in both areas. He was suggesting the equivalent of two bottom lines, one, financial success; the other, independent and ethical journalistic freedom. Financial achievement should not be an end in itself.
Meaningful business goals are becoming progressively more complex, requiring leaders with informed worldviews and broad foundations of knowledge and skills--a liberal arts education.
While the value of a liberal arts education is being questioned by many, it isn't by business leaders given that a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.
The future prosperity of our nation depends on business leaders who will be responsible not only for the traditional bottom line, but for developing thoughtful wealth with a "triple bottom line." This term was coined by John Elkington in 1994 to describe an accounting principle that evaluates business success along economic, social and environmental parameters.
Does it make money? Does it benefit people? Is it good for the planet? Business leaders need to be able to answer these questions, and success requires that all three standards have been met.
The critical element that was lost in the popular truncation of Coolidge's perpetuated quote is sadly also often missing in contemporary discourse about business: What is the purpose of wealth?
Later in the speech, Coolidge stated that "In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture."
Therefore, the chief business of the American people is business so that we can flourish as a free people in a state of continual cultural enrichment.
The idea that business leaders should have a responsibility for all forms of prosperity existed far before Coolidge. The Republic of Venice functioned as much like a corporation as a nation. It was an oligarchy dominated by culturally informed merchants that, through international trade, thrived as one of the wealthiest and most powerful city-states in the world for more than 1000 years.
Venice sustained itself by investing in the arts, architecture, exploration, technology and education. These investments made them stronger. The leaders were attentive to the quality of life of their citizens who in turn remained committed to the success of the Republic. They developed wealth with a purpose, which necessitates more than one bottom line. Wealth without purpose is the Midas curse. Wealth with a thoughtful purpose yields true prosperity.
To adequately understand the complex goals of a modern business enterprise, a liberal arts education is of paramount importance. This is why all students in the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University complete the same Central Curriculum as their classmates in the School of Arts and Sciences. They also participate in our Global Opportunities (GO) program, a cultural immersion study-away program that is a graduation requirement for all SU students.
We are developing graduates to become leaders in an increasingly interdependent and complex world.
Like our very best business leaders, they will need a rich understanding of people, of ethics, of science, of the environment and of the arts. This remains the best preparation to lead American business toward wealth with purpose so we may all continue to thrive individually and as a society.