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The "L" Word

Searching for a reason why so many of your newly hired MBAs turn out to be lackluster performers? Try looking in a mirror.

In one memorable episode of the 1970s television program “All in the Family,” the show’s lead character, Archie Bunker, lands in hot water for making a costly mistake on the job.

Bunker works as the loading dock foreman at Prendergast Tool and Die, a medium-sized manufacturer in New York City. In the episode in question, he is told by his superior to send a recently completed order to London. He promptly does so, shipping the product at great expense across the Atlantic to London, England.

Unfortunately, the order was meant for a customer in the Canadian city of London, just across Lake Erie in the province of Ontario.

In the context of the show, Bunker’s blunder was meant to be amusing. But his gaffe inadvertently highlighted a problem in American manufacturing that has only grown increasingly pernicious over the past 30 years.

According to “All in the Family’s” backstory, Archie Bunker dropped out of high school during the Depression to go to work and support his family. Poor old Arch could, therefore, be forgiven his ignorance of geography and the world in general. But how do we explain a similar level of obtuseness among today’s college graduates, including tens of thousands who come out of American graduate schools with shiny new master’s degrees in business administration?

The problem, in the opinion of most observers, is that too many young people now see education as merely preparation for their first job. As a consequence, they tend to focus their efforts on obtaining only the information they believe will be necessary to land that first position and propel them out of the starting blocks on the fast track to promotion. With only one goal in mind, few ever give thought to the long-term value of a broad and wide-ranging liberal arts education.

It should be no surprise, then, that although Archie Bunker never attended a university or graduate school, his predicament at Prendergast Tool and Die derived from the same three causes that today produce so many problems inside American companies large and small.

First, Archie’s immediate superior did not communicate clearly – either orally or in writing – the true destination of the completed product.

Second, Archie lacked knowledge of the broader world beyond his loading dock; he simply didn’t know that London, Ontario, existed.

Third, and most important of all, Archie lacked the imagination, intellectual flexibility and critical-thinking skills to question his boss’s orders or, for that matter, the logic of his own actions.

Archie Bunker was merely a victim of the circumstances in which he grew up. But no such excuse can explain the Bunker-like mentality of so many young people entering the workforce today.

Whose fault is it? There is blame aplenty to go around, from an increasingly dysfunctional American educational system to self-blinkered students themselves. But a big dollop of culpability belongs on your plate as well.

A recent poll among business leaders nationally revealed the contradictory nature of your expectations. Some 63 percent of you noted that many new graduates do not possess the skills necessary to compete successfully in a global economy. At the same time, however, a mere 33 percent of you placed a high value on critical thinking and reasoning abilities among new hires. Even fewer – a lousy 30 percent – saw value in oral and written communication skills. Incredibly, the paramount capability that business leaders sought among new additions to their organizations was a willingness to engage in “teamwork.”

This is a skill?

Fully 69 percent of the respondents to the survey thought it very important for a young person’s education to include both broad knowledge and an in-depth focus on a specific area. Yet when pressed to specify the most sought after skill among new hires, it turned out to be the ability to subsume oneself within a group, to turn off one’s critical faculties, to find common ground and cooperate with others – whether or not those “others” know what in hell they’re talking about.

A liberal arts education is, by its nature, interdisciplinary. Its multiple benefits include the accumulation of a wide range of knowledge, as well as analytical and communication skills. Above all, a liberal arts education promotes the development of intellectual flexibility, adaptability to change, critical thinking, creative problem-solving and a global perspective.

These are not the ingredients of “teamwork.” They are, however, the prerequisites of leadership.

So the next time you need to make a hiring decision, it might be wise to ask that eager-beaver, MBA-waving candidate if his or her academic experience is built on the unshakable foundation of strengths that only the liberal arts provide.

Being a team player is fine, as far as it goes. But, as a wise man once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

That line, by the way, comes from an essay called “Self-Reliance,” which was written more than 150 years ago by a rather well-known fellow named Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Well-known,” that is, to someone with a solid grounding in the liberal arts.

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