Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Business and the Liberal Arts

Many business people view the liberal arts -- here defined as the study of literature, history, and languages -- as nearly useless knowledge. If not useless, than at least not practical. They ask, "Aren't there more valuable returns on subjects like accounting and engineering?" Or, as one recently spied tee-shirt put it, "Friends don't let friends major in liberal arts."

We can draw a valuable lesson from -- surprise -- history. The French Revolution violently swept away the old system of learning and replaced it with schools that taught almost exclusively scientific subjects. The test of the educated man was no longer his knowledge of history, Greek or Latin, but his knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, physics and natural history. Education became, in a word, "scientific."

What was the result?

In his 1952 book, The Counter Revolution of Science, Friedrich Hayek summarized what happened in France:

"Thus, a whole generation grew up to whom that great storehouse of social wisdom, the only form indeed in which an understanding of the social processes achieved by the greatest minds is transmitted, the great literature of all ages, was a closed book. For the first time in history that new type appeared which as the the product of the German Reaschule and of similar institutions was to become so important and influential in the later nineteenth and the twentieth century: the technical specialist who was regarded as educated because he had passed through difficult schools but who had little or no knowledge of society, its life, growth , problems and values, which only the study of history, literature and languages can give."

An emphasis on scientific knowledge and the deliberate exclusion of the liberal arts led to mis-guided attempts to apply scientific terminology and methods to historical and social analysis. As a result, French science went from being foremost in the world to middle of the pack, and French social thought paved the way for totalitarianism in the name of science and the immutable laws of history.

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