The Importance of a Broad Liberal Arts Education
Recently I had what can really only be framed as a rather disheartening experience with a student.
After class, I had a random student from a different discipline come and talk to me because he had an HR question. His company is having a hard time with attracting and retaining qualified employees, and they have been desperately trying to find ways to reduce turnover, particularly in one of their lowest wage, but essential, positions.
Initially I was energized and intrigued by the question, as I’ve done lots of research in this area and I have lots of ideas on positive and proactive ways organizations can become an employer of choice.
But rather quickly it became apparent that really what this student, in his management role in a large organization, really wanted was to find out what he could get away with legally in terms of a range of restrictive and punitive actions to be taken against these low-wage workers.
He explained a series of proposals, which he framed as “strategic innovations” (which he was very pleased with himself for coming up with), that could be implemented in the policy and practice of the organization, each of which would certainly protect and strengthen the profitability of the company (in the short term at least), while simultaneously further exploiting an already disadvantaged population.
I explained to him how and why these actions would either be blatantly illegal, or at least flirt with the line, but more importantly why such policies and actions within an organization would be inhumane, unethical, and frankly abhorrent. Additionally, such proposals would also be short-sighted and likely have many long-term negative implications for the organization.
I was not necessarily disturbed by the fact that the student had the ideas or the questions (it was great that he was proactively seeking out a professor to explore things with outside of class), but I definitely was discouraged to see his smug reaction to my comments, how he tried to justify each of his proposals, and his seeming unwillingness to even consider my input (since it didn’t reinforce what he already wanted to do).
This situation also caused me to pause and reflect on what I teach my students and how I try to prepare them to be active and positively engaged citizens in the world around them (and what others at the University may or may not be doing with the same goal in mind). I hope I am training students well, and that they won’t pervert the principle of strategic innovation with an ends-justify-the-means mentality.
We can’t and shouldn’t just do whatever we want because it technically isn’t illegal, because we can get away with it, or even because a proposed action will help the organization. We can’t just constantly be looking for new “strategic and innovative efficiencies” without also carefully considering the broader social, ecological, and human impacts of such proposals.
This is one of the many reasons why a broad liberal arts education is so vitally needed.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.