Capitalism and Western Civilization: Liberal Education

William H. Young

Speaking of business and management majors, Douglas Campbell and James E. Fletcher argue in A Better Way to Educate Professionals that their students “should have a strong base in the traditional liberal arts and the physical sciences….to effectively work with people to understand and solve problems as well as to accomplish individual, organizational, and social goals.”

The eminent management consultant Peter Drucker (1909‒2005) agrees, writing in The New Realities (1989):

Management… deals with action and application; and its tests are results. This makes it a technology. But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development—and this makes it a humanity. So does its concern with, and impact on, social structure and the community. Indeed, as everyone has learned who, like this author, has been working with managers of all kinds of institutions for long years, management is deeply involved in spiritual concerns—the nature of man, good and evil.

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art—“liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.

For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through which the “humanities” will again acquire recognition, impact, and respect.

The Romans educated their governing elites in the artes liberales, the “liberal arts.” To them, artes meant skills and liberales referred to a free man. Liberal arts were originally something like “skills of the citizen elite” or “skills of the ruling class,” who were expected to debate and decide on issues of public policy. The Renaissance deplored ignorance and exalted the power of the educated mind. For its elite, it stressed education in the skills and prudence necessary to be successful in a life of work and to be a public-spirited citizen and member of the ruling class. The Renaissance demonstrated the need for balance in the knowledge provided by science, humanistic studies, and religion. In today’s sophisticated capitalist economy, business or corporate executives and managers constitute an economic ruling class that should be provided a similar education and capabilities.

But our universities have adopted an orthodoxy that dismisses a priori as “white male ideology,” the very idea of an educated person, of a cultivated human being provided with broad and humanistic knowledge of the kind esteemed in the Renaissance. The liberal arts have largely been eliminated from education, replaced by the social sciences and postmodern multiculturalism, with their animus against Western civilization and objective knowledge. Postmodernism in the academy still vehemently denies the efficacy of science, the value of reason and humanistic studies, and the need for religion and its moral precepts, while fostering the unrealistic and immoderate illusions of our academic and college-educated elites.

In Post-Capitalist Society (1993), Drucker discusses the clash between postmodern multiculturalism and the classical Western education in our colleges and universities.

A motley crew of post-Marxists, radical feminists, and other “antis” argues that there can be no such thing as an educated person—the position of those new nihilists, the “Deconstructionists in this group assert that there can be only educated persons with each sex, each ethnic group, each race, each “minority” requiring its own separate culture and a separate—indeed an isolationist—educated person….These people are mainly concerned with the humanities….Their target is…the universalism that is at the very core of the concept of the educated person….

The opposing camp—we might call them the “Humanists”—also scorns the present system.  But it does so because it fails to produce a universally educated person. The Humanist critics demand a return to the nineteenth century, to the “liberal arts,” the “classics.”…They are in a direct line of descent from the Hutchins-Adler “Return to Pre-Modernity.”

Both sides, alas, are wrong. The knowledge society must have at its core the concept of the educated person. It will have to be a universal concept, precisely because the knowledge society is a society of knowledges and because it is global—in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology, its central issues, and above all, in its information. Post-capitalist society requires a unifying force. It requires a leadership group, which can focus local, particular, separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, a common concept of excellence, and on mutual respect.

The…knowledge society…thus needs exactly the opposite of what Deconstructionists, radical feminists, and anti-Westerners propose. It needs the very thing they totally reject: a universally educated person.

Drucker argues that the productive use of knowledge now determines the competitive position of countries as well as companies (see my earlier article Knowledge Workers). More than possessing a bridge to the classical past, the educated person also “needs to be able to bring his or her knowledge to bear on the present, not to mention molding the future.” He adds:

The Western tradition will, however, still have to be at the core, if only to enable the educated person to come to grips with the present, let alone the future. The future…cannot be “non-Western.” Its material civilization and its knowledges all rest on Western foundations: Western science; tools and technology; production; economics; Western-style finance and banking. None of these can work unless grounded in an understanding and acceptance of Western ideals and the entire Western tradition.

This is the very point that Steve Balch emphasizes in Metamorphosis:

What happened in, and through, the Western world during the last three hundred years is unique in the history of civilization. Western civilization is not just another civilization. It represents a metamorphosis in humanity’s estate. The other civilizations of the world have been reborn in, and through, that of the West.

Tragically, the kind of liberal education that Drucker recommends and Campbell, Fletcher, and NAS seek for future managers is no longer available in today’s academy. Campbell and Fletcher note that the saturation of the liberal arts “with Marxist doctrine is particularly confounding. Marxism, radical-collectivism and hostility to free enterprise are the antithesis of the traditional liberal arts’ search for truth, virtue, beauty and the meaning of human existence, and its commitment to intellectual freedom and personal choice.”

Moreover, the NAS report The Vanishing West demonstrates that education in the Western foundations sought by Drucker is no longer provided at most colleges and universities. Peter Wood observes in Epic Battles: “The report brims with the relevant details. But the basic picture is clear and simple. American higher education has by and large taken itself out of the business of teaching undergraduate students any kind of orderly overview of Western civilization.”

Thus, academia fails to provide the kind of enlightenment that Drucker considers essential for management and business professionals. Instead, as Jay Schalin notes in The Reopening of the American Mind, they are smothered in a “postmodernist fog that clouds the mind and renders graduates unemployable for all but rudimentary functions.” Ironically, the nation’s economic competitiveness is the worse for lack of a proper liberal arts education at America’s colleges and universities. The changes recommended by NAS to restore that education need urgently to be implemented.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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