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What Future Leaders Need to Learn in College

Jun 02, 2016

This essay originally appeared in Power Sheet, Fortune’s daily leadership newsletter. Sign up here.

To all the brand new college graduates who majored in a liberal arts field, I have a message: If you want to be a leader, you did the right thing.

This is a controversial message at a time when every village and town seems to be offering coding classes for kindergarteners and America’s dearth of STEM majors is conventionally viewed as a serious problem. None of that is wrong. Coding is becoming the literacy of the modern economy, and everyone should be conversant with it. Companies in energy, IT, and other fields want to hire more good STEM majors than they can find; of course they want a larger supply. Along the way, liberal arts have become desperately uncool except among a band of earnest evangelists who argue that it’s a solid foundation for whatever else a young person may want to do.

The thing is, the evangelists are right, especially with regard to leadership. “Look, the Army for a long time, many of the services have been looking for some very technical-type majors coming out of schools to deal with the technically advanced army that we have,” Lt. Col. Peter Godfrin, who heads Harvard’s Army ROTC program, told the Harvard Gazette recently. “But just from the conflicts that we’ve seen in recent years, the technological advances only get us so far. We need to be able to communicate and negotiate with folks; we need folks at the highest levels who can think through complex problems because … unfortunately, warfare is a human endeavor.” Colin Dickinson, a Navy officer who majored in economics, told the Gazette, “I can honestly say that I have drawn upon my learning in everything from marine biology to the tales of Homer in my attempt to best serve my sailors and lead them to success.”

What’s true for the military is true more broadly. David Kalt, an entrepreneur whose latest venture is an online musical instruments exchange called Reverb.com, wrote on Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal that “our chief operating officer is a brilliant, self­-taught engineer with a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago. His determination and critical-thinking skills empower him to leverage the power of technology without getting bogged down by it. His background gives him the soft skills – the people skills – that make him stand out as someone who understands our customers and knows how to bring the staff along.” Kalt spent years urging students to major in computer science and engineering rather than liberal arts. But his recent article is called “Why I Was Wrong About Liberal-Arts Majors.”

Advice on choosing a major obviously isn’t useful for new graduates, so here’s a message for students about to enter college: College isn’t trade school. Whether you major in a liberal arts field or STEM or anything else, you emerge not with the skills that will make you successful at a specific company but rather with a foundation for more learning. As advancing technology takes over more of the world’s left-brain work, the skills of deep human interaction, of leadership, are increasingly in demand. What a liberal arts education gives you – critical thinking, clear communication, the lessons of Homer – is growing more valuable, not less.

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