Wisdom @Work:

Where are the Liberal Arts Now That We Really Need Them?

By James Maroosis

The educated person will therefore have to be prepared to live and work simultaneously in two cultures–that of the “intellectual,” who focuses on words and ideas, and that of the “manager” who focuses on people and work.

Peter Drucker


It might be helpful to rid ourselves of the habit of always hearing what we already understand.

Martin Heidegger


If we ask the question “Where are the Liberal Arts now that we really need them on today’s college campuses?” and base our answer on direct observation of fact, we may to discover that:

  • Looking for the liberal arts, we will find that they are at work in the world of management and
  • Looking at the practice of management we will find that it belongs in the world of the liberal arts though it acts and is generally understood to belong somewhere outside of that world as a techne or trade.


From these observations, we will explore three conclusions:

  • The liberal arts are alive but not well living in the world of Management;
  • Management is not merely a technical or vocational course of study but a type of wisdom and must be recognized as such; and
  • That to restore the Liberal Arts to their preeminence, allowing them to achieve their primary purpose as Humanities, requires recognizing that the study of management is an integral part of what it means to be a liberally educated person.



Part I
Locating the Liberal Arts by Distinguishing Inorder to Unite



Distinguishing Management from Business


In order to follow this exposition, I must ask you to “suspend your disbelief” and try to dissociate the word ‘management’ from the word “business” and the term ‘liberal arts’ from what is being currently being taught as “The Liberal Arts.”


Peter Drucker points out in Management Challenges for the Twenty First Century that the word “management” does not mean “business-management.”

It is important to assert—and to do so loudly—that management is not business management, anymore than say, medicine is obstetrics.


Management is an activity.  It is a doing specified by its object, which means there are many different types of management one of which being business management.


Drucker reiterates this point and expands upon it to describe Management as social function and liberal art, in a talk he gave at Harvard’s JFK School of Government he points out that,

Management, in most business schools, is still taught as a bundle of techniques, e.g. budgeting or organizational development.  To be sure, management, like any other work, has its own tools, and its own techniques.  But just as the essence of medicine is not urine analysis, the essence of management is not technique or procedure.  The essence of management is make knowledge productive.  Management… is a social function.  And, in its practice, management is truly a liberal art.


If the “essence of management is to make knowledge productive”, how does it differ form the essence of humanism to put knowledge to use for human benefit? We will see that it not only does not differ but management is the place out of which an authentic humanism must emerge where corporate responsibility, honor and benefit converge to create value in the world.


In this sense, management, as a liberal art and social function, is an analogical activity specified by its object and not a univocal activity specified by a set of prescribed rules.

There are, of course, differences in management between organizations—MISSION DEFINES STRATEGY, AFTER ALL, AND STRATEGY DEFINES STRUCTURE—But the difference between managing a chain of retail stores and managing the Roman Catholic Church are amazingly fewer than either retail stores or Bishops realize.

So whether you are managing a software company, a hospital, or the Boy Scouts the differences apply to only 10% of your work.  This 10% is determined by the organizations specific mission.  Its specific culture, its specific history and its specific vocabulary.  The rest is pretty much interchangeable.


Mission defines strategy and strategy defines structure.  This is true if you are managing a business, a college or a tradition. Management as a discipline not only orients toward an end it also acts and produces results in accord with those ends it hopes to achieve.  It puts ideas into action to produce results.


But how is management a liberal art?


If we look at the way it works, we will see that management as a discipline is nothing but the original Liberal Arts of Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic applied to the language of organizational practices.

Distinguishing The Liberal Arts from the “Liberal Arts”


Just as it is a mistake to conflate Management with Business, it is an error to equate the Liberal Arts with is currently being taught under their name in most colleges and universities.  In fact, most Liberal Arts courses are really courses in applied social sciences, applied psychology, or applied political theory.  They rarely are courses in applied Liberal Arts.


Paradoxically, the Liberal Arts as a method of inquiry seem to have lost their applicability in the “Liberal Arts” as a form of education. Today, the Liberal Arts are often understood to be constituted by a group of subjects or books and not a way or method of approaching or reading these subjects or books.


The original meaning of the liberal arts as a threefold path rarely is mentioned much less taught with any seriousness in or by today’s “Liberal Arts” faculties.  Yet, it is precisely this older understanding of the liberal arts that is being taught in business schools as the practice of management.    


If we examine the study of management as a discipline, you may be surprised to find that the patterns which emerge have their roots in the medieval and early renaissance understanding of the Liberal Arts.


All through antiquity, through the middle ages and into the Renaissance, the goal of a Liberal Arts education was service to the community be it religious or secular. The whole point about scholarship as a cloistered pursuit was that these studies were so important for society that society needed to create a free space where they could be pursued at leisure.  Never the less, a liberal arts education had rock-solid practical value: to put knowledge into action for the corporate welfare of the realm.



At the core of this understanding of education are the three liberal arts of Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic.  Together they constituted the crossroads or tri-via that, as Hugh of St. Victor explains,

…prepare the mind for philosophic truth…since by these roads, the lively mind may enter the secret places of wisdom.


They are:

  • Rhetoric as the art of transformation (i.e. persuasion, empowerment, negotiation) and was generally understood as the arts of eloquence and decorum. The goal here is transformation—changing the way people think or act.
  • Grammar as the study of words and their inter-animation with other words– which means etymology (studying their roots and meaning in different contexts), exegesis (interpreting their meaning and exploring their consequences). The goal here is to study words, their interaction, their history, interplay and implications and how to read signs and situations.
  • Dialectic (logic) as the art of following arguments, evaluating the soundness of thinking. It was about mapping things out in an orderly fashion and learning how to think things through.  The goal here is abstract clarity and focus.


In Teaching as Interpretation, I. A. Richards points out that the original purpose of these three arts were,

To orient, to equip, to prepare, to encourage, to provoke, a mental traveler to advance by his own energies in whatever region may be his to explore; to make him or her think for themselves and make them able to do so sanely and successfully…


He goes on to explain that this,

has always been the aim of a civilizing education … [and that] … Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic, if we set aside their repulsive terminology’s and associations, are the headings under which to arrange what the student we hope to help needs most to study.


His point being: “a training in Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic, as Arts not sciences, which is at present almost entirely lacking in the curriculum, is what is most needed.”  Richards’ wrote this over 60 years ago and it was as true then as it is true today.  You will still not find the liberal arts being taught with any seriousness as liberal arts in the “Liberal Arts.”


This is not to say they are not being taught or taken seriously anywhere else. In fact, if we take a look, we will find that they are being taught in the Business Schools as the practice of management.


The  trivium is the core curriculum managers must learn to do their jobs. 


What management programs teach, without realizing it, is the old Liberal Arts core curriculum of rhetoric, grammar and logic: that, along with the quadrivium (the four major sciences), made up a liberal-arts-and-sciences education.


  • Rhetoric is learning how to work with people, how to facilitate meetings, sell ideas, empower fellow workers, make presentations, talk on the telephone or in front of people, write memos, market and advertise products. It is about using words and media to transform the way people think.


  • Grammar is the study of organizational and informational interfaces, the art of interpreting the processes that make up an operation and then learning the true meaning of an organization. It is about a deep exegetical analysis of the meaning and the manner of organizations. How people and processes work together to produces results.


  • Logic is strategic planning, setting goals, developing action plans, and down sizing to increase effectiveness. How can we achieve a 10% reduction in our insurance costs? How do we sort things out to identify problem areas and areas of opportunity?


Management is at its core a Liberal-Arts discipline.  The Trivium is what MBA’s Do.


Distinguishing between the Ancients and the Moderns

Discovering the trivium at work in management is important for two reasons.  First, it makes it very clear that management has every right to call itself a Liberal-Arts methodology or discipline, albeit a discipline that is quite different from the one currently being taught in today’s Liberal-Arts faculties.  Second, it reintroduces grammar and rhetoric as a legitimate and not just remedial or preparatory course of study.


This brings us to “the battle of the books,” that is, the history of the trivium as the history of a “battleover the control and definition of the meaning of the Liberal Arts.


This battle began when Plato threw Homer, The Sophists and The Orators with their “MBA programs” out of his ideal Republic.  In the Middle Ages this battle raged as a civil war among the scholastics between the Ancients (The Grammarians and Rhetoricians), and The Moderns (the Logicians).


Today it is the yet-to-be-declared turf war between the Management Schools and the Liberal Arts faculties over the direction and goals of higher education.  Ironically, the Management schools represent the ancient alliance of Grammar and Rhetoric, while the ”Liberal Arts” faculties are the descendants of the opposition: Logic.  This war is “yet to be declared” only because the question on most campuses is how do we get management majors to take an interest in the arts when in fact the real question is when will the arts begin to take a real interest in management!


The problem is that “the liberal arts of management” (the trivium) are directly opposed to the way the Arts Faculties have in fact been managing the Liberal Arts (abstract constructions and deconstruction’s of ideas, political theories and applied social science).  Hence the battle lines have already drawn and the best we can do is anticipate this conflict and try to resolve it before it gets out of hand.


Distinguishing the Complexes at Work in this Battle

This age-old battle between the Ancients and the Moderns (pre-post-or present) has to stop and it has to stop now.   There is too much at stake.


The first step toward ending this conflict is to break through our denial and admit that such antagonism really does exists and that it has a long history.  The next step is to approach this problem psychologically and in depth to look for the intellectual and psychological complexes, fears, and anxieties that are instigating and perpetuating it. I am talking here about exposing the immense, and largely unconscious, sea of resentment and distrust that lie in the way of any real integration of Management and the Liberal Arts.


If we can recognize that this is a 2500 year old feud that carries with it all the ferociousness of a tribal vendetta, a balkanization as it were of the Liberal Arts and if we look at this relationship with the consciousness of some one who is tired of acting out these destructive complexes, then we can work together on reintegrating all of these shadowy elements by looking at them in a totally new way.  This requires courage and the willingness to let go of old identities in order to rethink who we are as artists, managers and educators in a far more honest and effective manner.


Doing this will require that everyone take on new roles and responsibilities.  It requires recognizing that one’s old expertise has now become one’s new ignorance.


This restructuring of our own self-identity will produce a lot of stress, with ignorance taking the place of certainty and dialogue taking the place of set rules and regulations.


But this new ignorance is systemic and must be accepted as a prerequisite for survival.  It has to be depersonalized and seen for what it really is: a byproduct of reintegration and a rich source of new insights and awareness.


Ignorance is to knowledge what ignoring is to folly

Ignorance is to this new learning what ignoring is to the folly of trying to upgrade the old system.  Ignorance will lead the way either to hope or to disaster.


Recognizing our collective ignorance requires a team approach.  It also requires the courage to be open, honest and willing to learn anything from anyone.  This is the type of interdisciplinary humility expressed by Hugh of St. Victor in his Didascalicon, which is a 13th century treatise on Liberal Arts education.  For him,

Humility is the beginning of [interdepartmental/liberal arts] discipline, and although there are many examples of this, these three especially are important to the reader:

  • First, that he should hold no knowledge and no writing cheap;
  • Second, that he should not be ashamed to learn from anyone;
  • and third when he himself has attained knowledge, he should not scorn others.


Describing the age-old humility at the heart of Liberal-Arts scholarship, this passage also describes the humility required to be an effective educator, manager or consultant in today’s world.  This type of “cross discipline” convergence is one more indication that we are way beyond the threshold of this wonderful revival of classical and medieval modes of understanding.


The resurfacing of the practical integrity of Rhetoric, Grammar, and Logic is only the tip of the iceberg.  Medieval and pre-literate competencies and modes of awareness are everywhere.


Could it be that McLuhan was right? He observed that our world of instantaneous global communication is a paradigm for Medieval and Pre-literate sensibilities.  His point being to manage effectively in today’s world one must learn and assimilate ancient liberal arts sensibilities as a strategy for survival.


In this context, the reappearance of the trivium is no trivial matter, because it is the efficacy of the trivium, and not some nostalgia for the past, or some platitudes about the importance of a classical education, that is responsible for its reinvention by and utilization in business and management.  This “reinvention” is a response to a real need that the original Three Liberal Arts seem to meet.  It is the need to learn how to navigate in today’s multi-technological trans-cultural business  world.


The fact that this adaptation takes on the form of the trivium hints that the keys to our survival in today’s world may well be age old and diverse and not what is touted today as post-modern and multi-cultural.  The renewal of this integrated understanding of the Liberal Arts could mark the end of the hegemony of abstract western logic (modernism in all of its pre, past and post phases) and the pseudo unilogical-multiculturalism it has engendered.


It could mark the end of the fragmentation of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic into discrete specialties by pointing to the need to reintegrate the trivium as fundamental to a vital and relevant renewal of the Liberal Arts.  The reintegration of the arts is the renewal of something very old, very rooted, and very well tested.

This renewal requires the restoration of management to its rightful place within the Liberal Arts not only as a discipline but also as a Liberal Arts subject.  The subject matter of management is found in the field of practical action.  It is that nexus where knowing shifts into doing, where wisdom moves from insight into action.  It is the place where creativity and responsibility meet.  This points us to the world of practical wisdom and the original meaning of the Humanities as Humanitas “knowledge put to the benefit and use of humankind.”

Part II

Wisdom @ Work

It is very important to understand that management is about following patterns and not about following rules.  It is not about taking orders and doing things right (being efficient).  It is about seeing what needs to be done and doing the right things (being effective).  But this distinction between efficient and effective which is commonplace in the school of management is incomplete and really belittles the task of the manager.


Management as a doing is fundamentally a moral activity and therefore good management needs to learn to do the right thing (which means being highly effective) for the right reason (which means having the courage and self-control to be honest, fair, just).  As we will see, managing is fundamentally a moral activity that lives for better or for worse in the world of the moral virtues: Prudence (Practical Wisdom), Justice (Honesty), Fortitude (Courage) and Temperance (Self Control and Soundness of Mind and Body).


To do the right thing for the right reason Right Now is precisely how Aristotle and Aquinas describe Practical Wisdom.  It means knowing what to do and doing it.


As Peter Drucker puts it, “Do first things first and second things not at all.”  His point being that the “first things” are always the next right now things to do.   Doing first things first for the right reason is what the Greeks called Phronesis, the Latin’s called Prudence and the Chinese call The Tao or The Way. My point is that management as a practice entails all the discipline entailed in these various trans-cultural age-old understandings of practical wisdom.


KAIRON GNOTHI: seize the advantage in the opportunity of the moment.


Now this notion of practical wisdom, an idea that has its roots in the pre-literate Homeric world of the Greek’s and the pre-Confucian world of the Chinese, has always been understood to consist of two distinct components.

  • First it has a intellectual component. It is a knowing that follows the way of things and their effects on us; and
  • Second it is a doing. It is a way of being in action by developing plans, expediting options, producing results, making things happen and living in the world.

So that practical wisdom is a knowing that is a doing and a doing that is a way of being.


As Aristotle points out in the 6th book of The Nicomachean Ethics of the five intellectual virtues and the four moral virtues, only phronesis,  (practical wisdom…the management of things or oneself in the world) requires knowing about things and doing something with that knowledge.


Practical wisdom is knowledge in action or knowledge in practice and everything that is taught in management belongs to this field of study.


Please note: What makes this knowledge  practical is not that it belongs to a different type of reason like Kant’s distinction between practical and pure reason.  What makes it practical is that one’s knowledge of the way things are is transformed into effective actions generating results.


Managing is a way of doing things, which means it is an ethics.  This is straight out of the Aristoleao-Thomistic tradition.  As Joseph Pieper explains in his The Four Cardinal Virtues:

An education to prudence [practical wisdom] means: to the objective estimation of the concrete situation of concrete activity, and to the ability to transform this cognition of reality into concrete decision. [Pg. 31]


Practical wisdom implies “a transformation of the knowledge of truth into decisions corresponding to Reality.”  This is exactly what it means to be an effective manager.


As the habit of effectiveness, management is a form of Prudence. Put simply, to be virtuous is to be effective.  It is to do the right things for the right reasons. But to be effective is not necessarily to be virtuous.  You can always do the right things for the wrong reason’s (acting out of fear, self-interest or an addiction to power, greed, sex, etc.).


To be virtuous does not mean one has to be nice and proper (that’s merely being efficient); it does mean being truthful and honest (situation-appropriate).  It does not mean being perfect, or always being right: it does mean to be unceasingly committed to “doing first things first.”


This is why I think books like Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive and Managing for Results should be required reading and built into the core requirements for first year Liberal Arts students.


Reading these books is the quickest way I know to get students to learn through their own experience the efficacy of ethics as a preparation for action. Moreover, the time to learn how to be effective is at the beginning of one’s studies. When I use these books in my freshman philosophy classes, I have seen students study habits change right before my eyes.


Once they have tested Covey’s suggestions and found them to work, I use their desire to be effective to whet their appetite to be good.  The good decision is always better than the merely effective one and this is a fundamental lesson that needs to be taught and re-taught continually.


One can begin with Covey or Drucker and end up with Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas or one might end up with Confucius and Lao Tzu or The Bahavada Gita or Grimms Fairy Tales.  It does not matter: on this one point they world wisdom is saying the same exact thing.  To be good is to be effective but to be effective is not necessarily to be good.


Management, like practical wisdom is “the practice of existential readiness.”  For unlike the reflections of a philosopher, or the creations of an artist, the manager puts what he or she knows into action.  He or she is responsible for getting things done and producing results


Understood in this sense, management is a way of being or comporting oneself in the world.  It is about being effective, being innovative, and being entrepreneurial.  It is also about embracing life, staying in touch with things and working things out.  It is an ethics without the moralism of set rules and regulations.


A good manager needs the courage to be fair without acting out.  He or she needs to develop those habits (virtues) which will allow him or her the capability to do the right things for the right reasons.  The idea is to become response-able, to learn how to flourish within contexts, to be eloquent, decorous, situation appropriate– without being vacuous, devious, evil or mean.


This is what once constitutes a well-rounded Liberal Arts education.  What the Greek’s called Egkiklios Paideia or learning the whole cycle of arts and sciences needed to be a civil and contributing member of the Polis.


As practical wisdom, the practice of management is about being good by bringing goods into the world.  It is about learning the meaning of bestowal.   This is what makes up the effectiveness and practicality of an ethical way of life.  It is what makes for good people, good societies, good cultures and good organizations.


Part III

Management as Humanitas


Peter Drucker in The New Realities describes management as fundamentally a Liberal Arts discipline that is fundamentally a moral activity.   For him, management,

… deals with people, their values, their growth and development—and this makes it a humanity.  So does it 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.


He goes on to describe Management as what “used to be called” a liberal arts discipline that uses all the liberal arts and sciences to get things done.

Management is thus what the tradition used to call a liberal art—“liberal” because it deals with fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is practice and application.  Managers draw on all the knowledges and insight of the humanities and social sciences—on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on the physical sciences and ethics.  But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results—on healing the sick patient, teaching a student, building a bridge, designing and selling a “user-friendly” software package.


Drucker’s “ideal manager” possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences and the ability to apply that knowledge to get results. His description of the manager parallel’s Homer’s description of Odysseus as “the man of many devices;” it  mirrors Cicero’s understanding of an educated person “as one versed in the encyclopedia of the sciences;” while retrieving the ancient notion that one received a liberal arts education to put it to service for the common good of the corporate body.


To see how traditional Drucker’s position is, simply replace the word orator with the word manager in the following quote from Cicero’s De Oratore.

Training in the liberal arts is as necessary to the orator [manager] as knowledge of color is a prerequisite for a painter (I, 65).


Drucker’s description of a liberal art is somewhat confusing.  He defines the liberal arts as Liberal=Knowing and Arts=Doing, but that is not what these words mean.  The word liberal comes from the Latin Libertas which is the root of words like to liberate or liberty. The liberal “part” of the liberal arts is about freedom.  The art “part” means “to make.”  So the term liberal arts means, quite literally, “the arts that make us free.”


What Drucker describes as “The Liberal Art of Management” the ancients simply called the virtue of Prudence, i.e., Practical Wisdom: “the ability to put knowledge into practice” or as they would say to put Truth into action.


So if we ask Peter Drucker the question that he likes to ask everybody else,   “What Business is Management in?” and should he answer “the ‘Liberal/Arts’ business” we would have to say to him, as he is so famous for saying to others, “You are wrong! Management is in the practical wisdom business’ and it is carrying on a tradition that is thousands of years old. The roots of this tradition are found in Homer.  They come through Isocrates, Cicero, the Patristic Fathers and the Renaissance Humanists until they reach us from the West.  The same roots (but maybe not the same wisdom) can be found in the I Ching and come through the sayings of Confucius and the writings of Lao Tzu until they reach us from the East.”


But Drucker’s description of a manager, as one whose knowledge and skill set must be encyclopedic, highly creative and response-able is pure Cicero.  In this sense, management is the nexus where the liberal arts and sciences converge in practice.


Based on this understanding of management, Drucker concludes that management is the we must learn to take and use for our own purposes the Studia Humanitatas of the Renaissance Humanists

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


This requires rethinking management studies to include the arts and reconstituting the arts as a type of managing.


As with the retrieval of the trivium here too we must recognize the emergence and reconvergence of ancient and medieval paradigms as effective adaptations to our most pressing contemporary needs.


So that the practice of management in today’s world may very well require the retrieval of three ancient themes:

  • The Trivium applied to learning the language of the new organizational structures being constituted by the onslaught of the new technologies.
  • The Renewal of the meaning of Prudence as the subject of Management
  • The Retrieval of Humanitas “knowledge being put to practical use” as the mission of higher education in the 21st

The post-capitalist society—the knowledge society—thus needs exactly the opposite of what deconstructionists, radical feminists or anti-westerners propose.  It is the very thing they totally reject: a universally educated person.

Peter Drucker

© 2002

Dr. James Maroosis is a Recipient of The Innovations Award in American Government co-sponsored by The Ford Foundation and The JFK School of Government at Harvard University.  He has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and currently teaches a seminar on Leadership for the 21st Century: Innovation, Creativity and Responsibility and a seminar on The Giants in the History of Management: Peter Drucker, Mary Parker Follett and Marshall McLuhan at Fordham’s Graduate School of Business Administration and a course on Management as Humanism and Liberal Art for The Deming Scholars MBA Program at Fordham. He has had recent articles on Innovation and Creativity published in The Harvard Management Update and Leader to Leader the quarterly journal of The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management