You may recall my “Eminent Domain” blog posted back in May after I attended my Penn reunion. I had listened to President Gutmann’s presentation and concluded that, given her use of the words “eminent” and “pre-eminent” 95 times in 30 minutes, that anyone wanting to hang around Penn better have some big ideas, some big words, and a surefire way to impact someone, something, sometime.
Turns out some folks at Penn saw my mini polemic and it got them thinking. No, no one was thinking about whether I was eminent. But they were thinking about how this little liberal arts major ended up in the big bad (Wharton-reserved) world of the capital markets. And they want me to come to campus and tell my story! That’s right, apparently I may actually impact someone! I’m to talk to a group of students and explain how my liberal arts degree prepared me for a career that spanned non-profits, academia, and Wall Street (not to mention aerobics and substitute teaching!)
Here’s the backdrop: Penn has four undergraduate schools – business, nursing, engineering and the regular old college, which is parlance for “liberal arts education.” 75% of Penn grads hail from the College (now called the School). But in today’s world of skyrocket tuition and a dearth of jobs, more and more families are questioning the worth of a presumably “what will you do with this?” degree.
So, I started thinking about what I would say about how my liberal arts education was instrumental in my career growth. Hmmm…well, it’s always good to draw upon Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov when faced with moral dilemmas in the boardroom, right? And, the Anna Karenina Principle certainly comes up regularly. Oh, and that music course sure helped me negotiate management fees.
It wasn’t coming to me, so I did what everyone does when ideas just aren’t flowing: I went to the bathroom.
And, here, in my guest powder room, I flipped to page 41 of the Wesleyan alumni magazine where President Roth was discussing why liberal education matters. He characterized the trend toward majoring in marketable majors as “Pseudopracticality.” Wow. He said that those calling for utilitarian degrees are really just advocating the continuation of the status quo, aka “backwater,” and that without liberal arts thinkers, we will be devoid of leaders who can adapt to the future and steer change.
Roth talked about the need for ambiguity in the world and that those who want clarity will fail to think, will fail to absorb nuances, and will inevitably follow instead of lead.
I know! You’re thinking – what a cop out! She’s going to tell us what’s so great about a Penn liberal arts degree by quoting folks from another liberal arts school. Well, here’s the rub. Nearly all of Roth’s observations are attributed to the visions and statements of Ben Franklin….the founder of my alma mater. So arguably, it’s full circle.
One of the most compelling things Roth said in this piece was that he observed a “trope of sophistication” in our culture – where we show each other how smart we are by putting other people down, dismissing them, and out-talking them. He wants to see today’s leaders be “Makers of Meaning.”
That hit home for me for sure. I’ve been in many meetings where the person arguing “no” prevailed. This person always had the same approach: find the one thing wrong in whatever was being advocated and dismiss the whole idea (this, by the way, is the Anna Karenina Principle at work). This person lacks creativity. Lacks a willingness to take a chance. And, ultimately, is treading water in the backwater world of the status quo.
So, I’m motivated to make my little presentation using many of Roth’s ideas coupled with my own lessons learned. In the end, I expect these students may be looking for a roadmap as I’m sure I was. So, I can talk about the need to find opportunity where others see obstacles and to draw upon the gifts you gain in and out of the classroom. But, in the end, as Roth suggested, ambiguity is the clearest roadmap of the world and your future – and embracing ambiguity is what these four years has prepared you for.