, Salem, MA

October 2, 2012

Column: Why it pays to be a fox

Robert E. Brown
The Salem News

---- — My students and their families are drowning. So are yours. According to a Pew Research report, one in five American families feels the undertow of student debt.

The overwhelming question: Has the tipping point been reached where college is no longer worth it?

Overwhelming question number two: If we even have to wonder about question number one, aren’t those science-free liberal arts majors wasting time and money?

After all, jobs are the holy grail of college. Do you doubt it? I welcome you to walk into my university classes and ask my students what they’re doing in college. They’ll tell you.

I like to think of myself as a job creator. I teach public relations. I have seen many of my students land jobs in PR agencies. I bring them back to give pep talks to my undergrads.

Still, I’m of two minds about the jobs thing. Once upon a time I was a corporate speech writer. I may have the mind of a policy wonk, but I’m liberal artsy at heart. Surprise! The two go together very nicely. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about a poet.

These days, I think a lot about the L word — as in liberal arts education. In the era of No Child Left Behind, standardized testing and unsustainable tuition costs, a liberal arts education has become the victim of brand erosion. In fact, it may have worse PR than liberalism itself.

What’s sexy is STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. Liberal arts education has lost its sex appeal.

Many of my colleagues cringe at the idea that they’re teaching what they derisively call ‘vocational school.’ But when I see my former students gainfully employed, I don’t cringe. I rejoice — and so do they.

Can we blame public opinion for dissing a liberal arts education? It’s dismissed as impractical. It’s anything but.

My liberal arts education has profited me. It opened the door to a career writing speeches for the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. My background became my entré to teaching business communications at the college level.

But there’s much more to liberal arts and humanities than skills. More, even, than jobs. The liberal arts instill a life-affirming, passionate curiosity about the world. There’s the fascination with ideas themselves, and not only with the ideas of novelists but of economists and diplomats and generals. A giant oil company hired me because I could explain the elasticity of demand and supply better than their engineers and chemists.

It might surprise you that none of my job interviews with corporate decision makers were about business. My interviewers were themselves liberal arts educated people who were very happy to talk about poetry, politics and baseball. A giant telecommunications company offered me a management job because I not only knew about mergers and acquisitions, I could also talk intelligently about foreign policy and the paintings of Mark Rothko.

The liberal arts-educated essayist Isaiah Berlin wrote that “the fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” Liberally educated students are foxes. In a world as global, diverse, complex, contingent, chaotic and rapidly changing as ours, the advantage goes to the foxes. Foxes are imaginative and improvisatory. They think on their feet and in their dens. They play well with others.

In the helter-skelter digital age, when the world comes rushing at us, foxy assets pay off.

When it comes to the skills valued in the career marketplace, none are more prized than critical thinking under pressure, sound judgment and strong communication skills. The fox’s skills are the byproducts of a liberal education.

Perhaps the mission statement of my university’s College of Arts and Sciences should be this: to bring to the lofty professions of science, technology and business the traits of the fox — communication skills, critical thinking and a passion for many extraordinary things, not just one great thing.

In the information age, it’s good to be a fox.


The author is professor of communications at Salem State University. He has been commissioned to write a book about public relations titled The Public Relations of Everything.