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liberal education

Settling in to college life this fall, students seem to be following a drumbeat toward practical majors. An all-time high percentage of respondents to UCLA’s annual survey of incoming college freshmen said that they are attending college in order to get a better job, make more money, and become well off financially.*

Business is the most popular undergraduate major, probably because students see it as the best route to a career in finance, investing, and other wealth-generating fields. They might be surprised to hear the opinions of some successful investors about the education best suited to such professions.

Robert Hagstrom, author of The Warren Buffett Way and senior investment counsel for Legg Mason Investment Capital, advocates a liberal arts education. In his book Investing: The Last Liberal Art, Mr. Hagstrom describes a concept for effective money management developed by Charlie Munger, Buffett’s partner and vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway.

Munger gave a lecture at USC’s Marshall School of Business in which he discussed “stock picking as a subdivision of the art of worldly wisdom.” He challenged students with the idea that their economics and finance are not isolated disciplines, but parts of a larger network of knowledge linked to physics, biology, social science, philosophy, literature, and mathematics. Munger introduced the metaphor of a “latticework of models” to describe the interlocking structure of ideas that supports real understanding. Investing is an extended development of that idea. How, Mr. Hagstrom asks, does one acquire worldly wisdom? By mastering an extensive latticework of disciplines rather than specializing early—in short, by pursuing a liberal education.

Though liberal education still receives lip service, Mr. Hagstrom argues, current societal and financial pressures drive students to specialize—a choice that leaves them with insufficient intellectual resources to connect diverse fields of knowledge. He explains how investment managers can improve their performance by studying seminal texts from the many disciplines mentioned by Munger, and he closes his book with an argument demonstrating how this sort of study can inform judgment and enhance the ability to make good decisions.

Mr. Hagstrom links his viewpoint to the decision-making model of Buffett and Munger:

You will recall that both Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett stress the importance of understanding the fundamentals of a company—the business model you invest in. And they mean real understanding, not mere data gathering; the sort of understanding that comes only from careful study and intelligent analysis. Thoughtfully choosing investments requires the same mental skills as thoughtfully reading a book.

But what books, on what topics and in what order? How do we choose, and how can we be sure we are reading appropriately to make the ideas our own? Let us start by dropping in on a college campus.

St. John's College

St. John’s College

Then Mr. Hagstrom describes the rich and varied curriculum at St. John’s College, providing a list of books read and discussed by all students. These include the literary masterworks of Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Shakespeare, Cervantes and Milton, Austen and Eliot, Melville and Twain, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; the philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Bacon, Descartes and Hume, Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; the political writings of Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau and the American Framers, de Tocqueville and Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington; religious books such as the Bible and Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Calvin’s Institutes; musical masterpieces by Palestrina and Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Wagner and Stravinsky; mathematical and scientific studies by Euclid and Ptolemy, Copernicus and Kepler, Galileo and Faraday, Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Mendel—and for those interested in economics, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Capital.

Mr. Hagstrom continues, “The art of achieving what Charlie Munger calls ‘worldly wisdom’ is a pursuit that appears to have more in common with the ancient and medieval periods than with contemporary studies, which mostly emphasize gaining specific knowledge in one particular field. No one would disagree that over the years we have increased our baskets of knowledge, but what is surely missing today is wisdom. Our institutions of higher learning may separate knowledge into categories, but wisdom is what unites them.”

The separation of knowledge into categories frustrates the human desire for unity. Each of us is a student of the world, a whole individual trying to make integral sense of the world, and striving to make that world our own.

A liberal education challenges students to understand themselves and the world around them. If they rise to that challenge, then any specialized undertaking—be it in business, finance, law, medicine, journalism, education, entertainment or the arts—will be their last liberal art, the one that follows upon developing the worldly wisdom to choose wisely for oneself.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on HuffPost College (January 2014) and is republished with gracious permission. 

* See survey here.

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3 replies to this post
  1. We are told by Socrates that we cannot possess wisdom, but we can recognize it when we see it.
    Maybe that is more in keeping of what a liberal arts education can offer rather than teaching wisdom.

  2. In an American PhD program, the student learns more and more about less and less. Take natural science, for example. The student is expected to be able to read journal articles and understand an area in depth, such as organic chemistry. Research is the goal, not understanding the world, or God, or ourselves. Quantification and statistical analysis lead to a successful dissertation, and to publishing in journals, the real goal of research. In that way, our postgraduate philosophy goes against the philosophy of the liberal arts.

  3. The late Peter Drucker appears to have articulated a view of the relationship of the practice of management to the liberal arts not unlike the relationship between investing and the liberal arts proposed here.

    Drucker believed that a grounding in the humanities and other liberal arts would enable managers to practice their discipline more effectively with respect to the means by which an enterprise operated, and with greater wisdom regarding its ends. In addition, he saw the practice of management informed by the liberal arts as a way by which the humanities could be rescued from the tight corral in which academic practice has confined them: “Management is the discipline and the practice through which the “humanities” will gain acquire recognition, impact, and relevance.”

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