The Importance of Big Ideas and Great Books

There is an excellent piece entitled "Philosopher Kings: Business Leaders would benefit from studying great writers" in the Schumpeter column of the October 4th 2014 Economist. The article is a lament with some poignant comments arguing that business leaders would be better off spending weekends reading great books and discussing big ideas with others rather than doing team building exercises or experiencing leadership skills on a kayak trip. The call is for business leaders to take some "inward-bound" courses instead of the typical outward-bound courses.

I think that the piece offers some great advice, and I think that the advice shouldn't just be taken by business leaders. Everyone in every walk of life could use a few big ideas and read a great book or two. Connecting with the broader ideas of what humanity is and what culture is can expand our horizons and challenge us to rethink our own narrow parts of the world. If a business leader can be encourage to rethink wealth accumulation by reading Plato, then what else can happen when other writers, thinkers, and philosophers from the past are read in new contexts?

The argument of the piece also reaches beyond mere weekend retreats for business leaders. What if someone was to immerse themselves in four years of university education that focused on great books and big ideas? What if rather than spending one's university years on one subject the coursework was part of a broad-based curriculum that integrated arts, humanities, and social sciences and challenged students to wrestle with humanity's big questions, to integrate disciplines with life and questions of faith, and to encourage analytical thinking and clear, concise writing? What if we abandoned the contemporary call for the "practical" and "employable" and actually graduated students who can think and make decisions and be innovative, which are arguably practical and employable in their own right? If this was the education that we pursued, we would have a few more people who could think outside the box, who could assess the past and consider the promise of the future, who would have a better understanding of what it means to be human.

The liberal arts or a broad-based curriculum may be old-fashioned. It may not be trendy, but something has to be said for its longevity. And I'm not convinced that the existence of glowing screens in front of every face make the liberal arts obsolete. I think our present time is in need of great books and big ideas more than ever. 

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