Big Questions, Small Ideas

            Everyday, I try to sort through the mostly histrionic, stylized chitchat that now passes for “the news” to see what facts make it through the sound wash about the state of business and the economy in the world.  I heard that last month the economy added about 125,000 jobs, about 1.5% of the 8,000,000 lost since this downturn began.  I’ve heard “experts” say the housing market has “hit bottom” and, some predict it will continue to “bounce along the bottom” for awhile.  (We have our house on the market.  Am I supposed to be encouraged by this?  I’m not.)

            I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish this economic calamity was behind us.  Some hope we simply recover to a point of stability; others would rather see the kind of tenuous prosperity we enjoyed not long ago become the norm again.  We’re all painfully aware of the personal impact—loss of jobs, the limitations of unemployment benefits, the threat (or reality) of losing one’s health insurance, home, savings, all of it. 

            But which way is out? 

           First, let’s look at which way was “in.”  We got here because we naively over-relied on complex, under-monitored financial systems that, for awhile, seemed to deliver considerable gains—on paper, anyway.  We got here because we adopted the view that success is measured by ever-improving financial outcomes, and whether the bottom line improves because the business operations underneath the financial reports have integrity, serve a purpose or perform some greater good is, at best, a secondary consideration.

            Now what does all this have to do with a liberal arts education?  Certainly I’m not suggesting better communication skills and analytical ability could have saved us.  And indeed, it isn’t a lack of analytical skills that caused this problem.  The analysis underpinning these financial gyrations is complex, some say unfathomably complex.  So what, then, is missing that leadership from the liberal arts would have noticed?

            There’s more to a liberal education than communication skills and analytical ability.  Part of the value of the liberal arts is that it encourages us to address “The Big Questions”:  “Who are we?”  “What are we doing here?”  “What is needed?”  A liberal education asks us to consider how and when to address these kinds of important questions, questions for which there is no one right answer, questions which require continuous re-thinking and course alteration.

            When business leaders aren’t guided by The Big Questions (“What should one hope for in the world?” “What is our contribution?”), they’re guided by the small questions (“How can I maximize profit?”)  And that’s how we got here.

            Our return to stability, even prosperity, isn’t a matter of restoring the recent norms.  It’s a matter of re-thinking our approach, putting in place products and services that fortify people and communities, and at least that attempt to address these Big Questions.  Putting Big Questions ahead of small ones (ahead of, not instead of) is a job for people prepared with a liberal education.

             As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, and will say again, liberal arts-educated students should be headed for business leadership.  Business will never address The Big Questions if we keep putting in place business leaders who are prepared to answer only the small ones.

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