What My Liberal Arts Major Taught Me: How to Be a Better Human

“I’m majoring in American Civilization,” I would tell people I met when I was attending Middlebury College over 20 years ago.

“What are you going to do with that?” they inevitably would ask.

“I don’t know,” I would say. “I just find it fascinating.”

The truth was, I didn’t know, and I couldn’t know, because I hadn’t yet been exposed to the field of advertising, which was my first career. The Internet browser, which became the backbone of my second career, hadn’t been invented yet.

The ranks of business and government leadership are filled with individuals who majored in subjects such as philosophy, the classics, history, English literature and American studies. Like me, they may have not known exactly what business they wanted to be in when they graduated, but they trusted that their intelligence and drive would lead them to success. The current CEOs of Sprint, Disney, American Express and Bank of America are among the many business leaders who hold Bachelor’s degrees with a humanities major. James Beriker CEO of Simply Hired, received his undergraduate degree in English Literature before going to law school. He was a corporate attorney before becoming a technology executive in 1999.

Despite the proven success of humanities majors, a recent survey of human resources professionals showed that only 2 percent of companies were actively seeking liberal arts majors. Yet according to another survey, 93 percent of employers agreed with the statement, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex programs is more important than his or her undergraduate field of study.”

Those three factors—critical thinking, communication and problem-solving—are the backbone of a liberal arts education. Academic majors in the humanities give students exactly what the title suggests: a greater level of human understanding and the ability to apply their thinking, communication and problem-solving skills to real-world problems.

By evaluating candidates for these factors, regardless of college major, you’ll fill your company with inquisitive, adaptable, capable employees who can lead your company into the future. Here’s how these three pillars of the liberal education worked together to lead me into a successful career as an Internet analyst and business writer.

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One of the most important skills in the 21st century, which I learned in college in the early 1990s, is the ability to find information and discern what is credible and relevant. From my first history class onward, I was hooked on research.

Researching historical materials requires the same level of discernment as finding out anything needed in a work role. Critical thinking was necessary in on the job tasks such as deciding what kind of market research survey to set up for a given client issue, determining the validity of a competitor’s research study based on their methodology, choosing a platform for a corporate blog in 2005 before most businesses even had blogs. In today’s Internet environment, where anyone has a platform for anything they want to say, the ability to approach information with a critical eye is even more important.

In the business world, research is useless unless it solves a problem. My most frequent problem in college was, “How do I write this 20-page paper in the amount of time that I have, given my current workload?” My natural level of curiosity would often find me lost in the stacks of the library, reading some book not necessarily related to my topic. One day I found myself sitting in the library stacks and crying over a book of photos of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression while researching a paper on John Steinbeck. Here’s picture by Dorothea Lange of a family and all its belongings.

Depression

Because the problem at hand was to get my paper done on time, I did not check out the book. As a book of photographs, it did not have information needed for the paper. But the experience allowed me to discover a natural empathy for the human condition that had not emerged from simply reading Steinbeck’s words in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University and author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” wrote in the New York Times about the value of absorption in works of literature, art and science. This is the antidote to the lack of hard-nosed critical thinking and problem-solving in our high-speed technology-centric lives. He wrote:

“Yes, hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.”

Informed perspective on massive shifts in history such as I experienced that day in the library fosters the development of empathy and emotional intelligence that is lacking in increasingly popular STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) educational programs. Without a perspective on humanity’s development in the context of the society, government and culture, tomorrow’s leaders will be less likely to make a difference in creating a sustainable future and less likely to create pleasant environments for their employees.

At Simply Hired, I see the engineering team constantly working on the problem of how to use technology to match job-seekers with relevant jobs—something that was not possible when I graduated from college 21 years ago. They test their assumptions against user behavior across devices so that they can create the best job search engine for delivering relevant results no matter where the job seeker is searching from. The engineers’ excitement in solving these problems comes from a very human place: they would not be able to survive without jobs, and they want as many people to be able to find a job as possible. CEO James Beriker is passionate about the company’s role in using technology to help people find jobs. If Internet existed back in 1934, would that family pictured above have had an easier time finding work and a place to live?

Toward the last two years of college my classes required me to write more papers and take fewer exams. The process of writing 10- or 20-page papers and getting A’s on them requires the ability to successfully synthesize information from a wide variety of sources and meticulously reference that information in order to back up a thesis statement. This ability to synthesize information, communicate through writing and meticulously attend to detail in sourcing were paramount when I became an analyst for the Internet measurement firm Hitwise in 2004. I wouldn’t have been able to do the writing that job required (press releases, blog entries, research reports, articles and presentations) without the skills I learned in college.

Communicating within a context of human understanding allows one to consider others’ previous knowledge and point of view when choosing the best communication strategy and delivery method. This applies to most jobs. For example, finding good employees, building a database or servicing client accounts requires a level of teamwork and interdepartmental understanding that will not benefit from one person continuously imposing his or her will on others.

Let’s take a trip back to 1993.

“Congratulations, you got a degree in American Civilization,” someone says to me. “What are you going to do with that?”

“I don’t know,” I say. If I had said…

“I’m going to help companies create better advertising by understanding their customers better. Then I’m going to have a job researching and writing about Internet trends so that companies understand how people are using it for entertainment, commerce, and socialization. Twenty years from now I’ll be writing about the online recruiting industry for an Internet job search engine.”

…my questioner might have questioned my sanity.

The accurate answer was “I don’t know.” But armed with critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills and a deep curiosity about humanity, an interesting and intellectually rewarding career unfolded for me.

No one bothers to ask anymore about why I went to a liberal arts college and majored in American Civilization.