The Benefits of a Humanistic Education

During the past couple of decades educational institutions, public and private and at all levels, have invested a lot in designing and delivering management courses. I started and aborted two Masters level courses in management. Besides, I had to attended a few other management courses as well, often – I must admit – with a certain reluctance, based on my experience of them.

My problem with these courses has always been that the moment I left the lecture room and asked myself ‘what am I taking back with me that I didn’t know before?’, the answer more often than not was – not much! I don’t want to generalise, but it seems to me that many of these courses are confectioned like display cakes, definitely promising but weak in delivering upon their promise.

I think that the best education I had was during my undergraduate studies in Philosophy. It made me think. My philosophical readings made me critical, honed my analytical skills, helped me construct sound and coherent ideas, and above all pushed me to question myself, my mindset, and shun any dogmatism. It’s mostly due to my philosophical studies that I learnt the value of being pragmatic, flexible, open and human. And because philosophy is such a wide ranging discipline, it introduced me to other disciplines – sociology, psychology, history, semiotics, economics, anthropology, art. I think dropping from the law course and taking up philosophy was one of the best and most (personally) defining decisions I made in my life.

It is quite ironic that I am writing this in today’s context when universities are investing less and less in the humanities, as is the general trend across all levels of education. I feel that my humanistic education opened my mind to a multi-disciplinary approach that has benefited me greatly to adapt quickly to different working environments, to see ‘the bigger picture’, to contextualise and it was to my benefit in changing jobs, to move into areas that were new to me and to adapt my skills to those challenges required for the new job.

In reality what skills does a manager need? First of all: contextualisation. The constant awareness of the market you are operating in. And the market doesn’t operate in a vacuum; it is influenced by the socio-economic context, which has a history and a political underpinning. Secondly: humanity. You are constantly dealing with people; your team, your customers, your executives. You need to learn how to communicate, especially how listen. Empathy. Understanding. How can you do this if not with an open mind, by being pragmatic, non-dogmatic? Thirdly: ideas. You don’t get ideas from nowhere. Ideas stem from an understanding of the context and people. Also by trying, experimenting; by analysis, criticism, dissection. It’s not enough to have ideas, they have to be doable and sustainable. Pragmatism.

I don’t think I can ever advocate enough the benefits of a humanistic education and positive impact it has on business, management and society in general. In my experience, even when I had to chair interviews, the best people where often those with a humanistic education. Apart from the fact that I generally find them more interesting to have a conversation with and as persons, they also possess the soft skills required to make them great team members, who learn fast, adapt more easily to the working environment, open themselves to teamwork and provide constant feedback to improve not just the product or service but also the work practices. They are more innovative, more creative. And yes, contrary to impression, they are also the more pragmatic and grounded.

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