How Liberal Arts Education Prepares People for the World of Work

The following article by Wheaton College professor emeritus Dr. Bruce Howard, appeared in the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics newsletter - Spring 2017 edition.

I have often heard people describe liberal arts education as a broad course of study through which students grow in their abilities to write and think critically. In a world that values specialization, the concept of “broad education” is all too often perceived of as knowing a little bit about a lot of unrelated topics that in the end amount to nothing worthwhile.

Christian Liberal Arts was the dominant mode of higher education in the United States in the 18th century. By 1990, only about .2% of all persons enrolled in higher education were attending a Christian Liberal Arts college.i Today that percentage is barely perceptible, on the order of one tenth of one percent.ii Society is looking at Christian liberal arts as a model of higher education and concluding that it is irrelevant. I respectfully disagree. I believe that what is done at places like Wheaton College is highly relevant to the world of work.

Christian liberal arts colleges specialize in the study of one thing; What does human flourishing really look like? Human flourishing is born out of relationship with our Creator. The study of human flourishing appears to be broad, but that is only because people are complex. The things studied in a liberal education are all different facets of the same question. How we interact with each other (social science), how we interact with the environment (natural science), the power of story to transmit values and vision (literature), thinking well and deeply about the important questions of life (philosophy), understanding the great trajectories of society (history) are all aspects of human flourishing.

The classical education trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric undergird the pedagogy of liberal education. Grammar is the essence of making meaning. Logic is about thinking well. Rhetoric builds on grammar and logic to come up with new ideas that are persuasive. In every discipline, there are disciplinary ways of making meaning (grammar) and thinking (logic) all for the purpose of driving meaningful change towards greater human flourishing. The beauty of this model of education is that students do in fact develop real expertise in 1) how to make meaning in a particular context, 2) how to think well in that context and 3) how to drive meaningful change.

With this education, you can take a literature major, put him or her on a trading desk in Zurich and say you are going to trade the Euro against the Yen.

Step 1 - How you make meaning in this context: What’s a euro? What’s a yen? What’s a spot trade? What’s a forward? What’s a position? What do all these words mean?

Step 2 - How you think in this context: How does one trade currencies?

Step 3 - Driving change: FX traders working for global organizations that are dealing with multiple currencies in a hundred or more countries are going to need to rise above simply executing trades. They will need to understand how managing currencies contributes to the greater purposes of the global organization.

All of this is intensely practical. Dr. Joseph Maciariello worked as a colleague of Peter Drucker for 26 years. He coauthored several books with Drucker and shared his teaching load. Dr. Karen Linkletter is a historian, an archivist at the Drucker Institute and a Drucker scholar in the liberal arts. Together they have sought to summarize the life’s work of Peter Drucker in a book entitled, Drucker’s Lost Art of Management: Peter Drucker’s Timeless Vision for Building Effective Organizations.

The book is a brilliant exposition of the contribution that a liberal arts education makes both to the development of managers and to the practice of management. Drucker believed that a professional manager has a responsibility to help make every person become the best version of himself or herself that they could possibly be, as they all worked together in alignment for the accomplishment of some purpose that was greater than themselves. He recognized both the importance of a God-centered perspective on life, and the value of liberal arts education as foundational to the art of management.

“At its heart, management as a liberal art deals with question of the human condition. The liberal arts ideal involves the study of disciplines that deal with human behavior, creativity, emotions, decision making, and moral values. Management necessarily involves organizing people for productive purpose, and thus it requires an understanding of what it means to be human.”iii

If it is true that the world of work values specialization, then what could more worthwhile than developing expertise such that in whatever context you find yourself, you know how to make meaning, how to think appropriately within that context, all for the purpose of driving change towards greater human flourishing.
My recommendation: Study liberal arts and then go out and get a great job.


Dr. Bruce Howard, Professor EmeritusIn addition to his teaching career of more than three decades at Wheaton College, Dr. Howard maintains an active professional association with Tyndale House Publishers serving on their Board of Directors. Dr. Howard also serves on the Advisory Board of Performance Trust. He has work experience in health care administration and banking. Dr. Howard has traveled to Kazakhstan to teach and present papers at Kazak-American Free University and University of Kazakhstan.

Wheaton College identifies itself clearly as a liberal arts institution. For more on this emphasis for the College, please visit our pages on "The Liberal Arts at Wheaton College," "The Value of a Wheaton Education" and "The Liberal Arts Advantage."



iCollege and University Enrollment in 1990 was 13,710,000.  Breneman determined there were only 212 colleges in 1990 that met the definition of pure liberal arts.  Of these 212, 10 belonged to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.  That would amount to about 25,000 students or .2% of total enrollment.

iiFaith on View Ranking of Christian Colleges and Universities ranks 191 colleges and universities that are distinctively Christian and have this commitment at the core of their educational philosophy.  They also report undergraduate enrollments of these institutions.  Total enrollment in 2013 was on the order of 309,000 students (excluding 70,000 on-line enrollments).  This would amount to 1.5% of total college and university enrollment in the United States in 2013.

iiiJoseph A. Maciariello, Karen E. Linkletter, Drucker’s Lost Art of Management: Peter Drucker’s Timeless Vision for Building Effective Organizations, McGraw Hill, New York, 2011, page 181.