30 Aug 2013

On Liberal Arts Education 

A few people have recently asked me how my study of the liberal arts has influenced my work as an entrepreneur, so I recorded some thoughts on the subject.

I began college as a CSE major, but as I didn’t have any programming background going into school, I was a little ill equipped for a CSE education. I did fine, academically, but found that I was spending tons of time on the homework, and learning everything by just the hours I spent programming, not the interactions I had with professors and other CSE students or the time I spent in the class room. This did not seem like an effective use of my tuition, so I decided to optimize for a major that focused my time and attention on things I would not get the opportunity to learn in the same way after graduation. I remember having a discussion with a friend at one point saying that I wanted to study least practical things possible, because any practical knowledge would be something that a future employer would be incentivized to have you learn on the job.

I switched to creative writing (in the English dept) my sophomore fall, and my sophomore spring I took my first philosophy class, fell in love with it, and picked it up as a major.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose), my plan to study the most impractical subjects backfired. I can now see that studying liberal arts (in particular philosophy and literature) is one of the most useful things you can study. You spend all of your time consuming vast amounts of information, trying to understand the thesis of each work you read, and then your assignment is to synthesize your understanding of (often hundreds of pages of) the work into a few written pages, and in the same short amount of space present an argument about why you agree or disagree with the author on a particular point or dissect an argument they make and prove why it’s unconvincing or fallacious. You develop speed of understanding, learn how to get to the core of an argument or text and understand what’s important and what’s not crucial. You learn how to synthesize, and write and argue with precision, clarity, and brevity.

This is indispensable knowledge when you are working on anything professionally that requires you to convince other people of your beliefs: arguing for or against a product decision, a strategic decision, an operational decision, raising money, winning new business, explaining a value proposition to a customer – pretty much everything.

A Liberal Arts Education Teaches Students to Analyze and Express Ideas Efficiently

This essay is a response to this twitter thread on the cost/value of education in the US:

@arctictony@aweissman @ewiesen. Have to disagree. Liberal arts may not work for a salary man, but it sure helps develop the innovation muscle.

@aweissman: @ewiesen depends how you define "education" - if by that you mean liberal arts education, I see low and declining ROI. Skillz pay the billz

@ewiesen: @aweissman I like Mish but I think that article is crap. Education might have poor ROI during an economic crisis, but pays in the long term.

@aweissman: "The cost of a US education seems enormously out of whack for what it provides." Mike "Mish" Shedlock http://bit.ly/twOmf

Probably the greatest asset of the liberal arts education is an exposure to a great many ideas and arguments that span a great many domains. Your assignment, in general, no matter what your field of study, is to fully understand the author’s argument and then either express in your own words why the argument either holds true or is faulty.

Often, in a single class, you’ll read 4 or 5 different authors who answer the same question with a different answer. One author will build upon another’s body of work, but refute a key, perhaps subtle, point, in his predecessor’s argument, and then diverge into a new solution.  The trick for the student is to recognize the essence of the arguments, highlight the differences, and either argue for one side or propose a new argument and refute both.

Writing short essays that distill the important arguments of large works and evaluate their efficacy in just a few pages provides excellent practice in a few critical skills. First, the clear, concise expression of ideas. Second, the efficient uptake of information and ability to cut quickly to the most salient points. Th ability to instantly recognize where a slow discussion is driving, identifying the thesis early, allows a sharp listener to interject and drive discussion towards the goal more efficiently by steering away from tangents or deep diversions into non-essential information. Finally, considering diverse perspectives and arguing for a “winner” is excellent practice for making and presenting an informed decision to a group led by building consensus and alignment rather than autocracy.

Thoughts? Email me: andrew.kortina@gmail.com

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