“From Books to Business: the Value of a Liberal Education” An article by Peter Fellowes

in The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2003.

reviewed by Elder M. Lindahl

Peter was a colleague in the Humanities Division at North Park. He taught English, creative writing, and literature, became the Divisional Chair, and in 1986, Academic Dean. Three years later, he surprised us with the news that he was leaving the academic world to take over the manufacturing business his grandfather started in 1917. The business began as Bankers’ Boxes, Inc. Now, as Fellowes, Inc., still a Chicago based company, it employs 1750 people, expects $700 Million in sales this year, and has locations in the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, and the UK. Their office products and computer electronics accessories are sold through stores like Best Buy, CompUSA, and Office Max.

In this essay, Peter recalls his early high school and college experiences. He was advised to take a college degree in the liberal arts as “the surest path to a meaningful life and fulfilling career.” He followed that advice and received his B.A. from Colgate University, an M.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins, and a Ph. D. in English from the University of Virginia. His emphasis was always on English, English literature, world literature, writing poetry, and journaling. He writes, “I wasn’t worried about getting a job. All I wanted to do was come to grips with the truth of life as expressed by great authors.” Those were the subject areas he taught at North Park. But everything changed for Dean Fellowes when he accepted his brother James’ invitation to share in the management of the family business.

What qualified me to enter this world? Apart from my last name and the gleanings of family conversations over the years, not much. But I had been telling students for years that the best preparation for a career was study in the liberal arts-—particularly English literature. I had cited the fact that most people change their jobs at least five times during their lives and that, for this reason, a general education was better than a specific or technical education. I had told students that most employers preferred to train their employees on the job; they recruit individuals who can think clearly, organize tasks, and communicate effectively....The study of novels and lyric poetry, short stories and drama, was a proven path toward a clear mind and an orderly spirit—that they could do no better than to take these skills into the real world of work. But was I right?

When Fellowes found himself behind a large mahogany desk in a tufted-leather executive’s chair, he came face to face with the unsettling realization that he didn’t know where he was, what he was hearing and seeing. That was particularly unnerving because he was a prominent officer who was to shape the future of a major office-products company. He confesses: “I possessed the respect of peers without having earned it.”

So, he turned to an old lesson from the academic world, he started asking questions. He began to read the company the way he was trained to read literature. He read it not only for the story, but to find the underlying structure, to locate the real meaning. Peter considered the people with whom he was working as if they were characters in a novel. What were their strengths and limitations? When should he listen and heed; when should he discount what he heard? The project was not an intellectual pastime, but a practical necessity.

Confronted with a problem, he would receive conflicting, authoritatively-delivered versions of what was happening and why from individuals who were in better positions to understand the problem than he. Knowing on whose opinion he could depend, and how far, was an early survival skill in the corporate organization. He found too, that life in business organizations was different from his academic career where he was more or less an independent contractor. In the business world, most of the world’s work is done by organizations made up of complex individuals who interact and contribute to the completion of shared tasks. It’s a challenge for everyone from the chief executive officer to the employee who was hired yesterday.

Quoting Peter:

To be blunt, no one really knows what’s going on. No one can see wide enough or deep enough into the organization to understand the whole. Everyone has just a piece of the picture in his or her hands. Business opportunities require rapid decision making, often more intuitive than reasoned and almost always based on lofty summaries, undigested opinions, and dramatically related anecdotes. Of course, professors also work with incomplete information, but in most cases, they enjoy the privilege of the resident expert and may forget–at least I did–how uncertain a basis their reasoned arguments may have. Entering the business world, I was shocked by the spontaneity of decision making.

The organization consumed a great deal of time and energy communicating with itself. They spent more than half their time communicating. They talked among themselves continuously 24 hours a day from ten global locations trying to get the overall view of what was going on. In this global setting, Peter fell back on his training in English.

I needed words, carefully chosen and arranged, in order to help others understand what I had observed and the conclusions I was drawing. I also needed the rhetorical skills I had absorbed in studying literature. To overcome the skeptical and to mobilize the indifferent, I required language in which emotional appeals were embedded. If it is nothing else, the world of business is a world of action, and human nature being what it is, people must be stirred in order to act. A vision of the future must be summoned, the thrill of victory must be evoked, the corporate will must be aroused if a business is to prevail against competition. Strangely, I found myself writing far more than I had ever done as a professor of English.

He found, too, that a liberal arts background offered more than training in the skills of critical thinking and effective communication. Liberal arts or general education also involves moral considerations. Corporate scandals or immoral business policies finally come down to the morality of individuals. Humans are tempted to improve themselves materially more than reform society. “Business continually tests the character of individuals.” Some important questions had to be addressed: “Does one have the self-discipline to control the human predisposition toward selfishness?” “Does one have the courage to tell the truth, or does one put greater confidence in the ability to manage the truth? Has one taken possession of the mysterious gift of empathy, such that one has some notion of what it might mean to be fair…?”

In the article, he reflects on the Capitalist claim that individuals pursuing self-interests do, even unintentionally, contribute to the common good. Despite the recent glaring exceptions to that generalization, Peter is confident that self-interest, when there is respect for the moral law, will bring positive advantages to society. Successful business people instinctively understand this.

As an academic, he had not expected to find so much enlightened self-interest in the business world as obtains. Mutuality is a moral prerequisite for business activity. A business goes sour unless there is mutuality between customer and supplier, employer and employee, manufacturer and consumer, management and shareholders. Without it, the economic circuit is broken.

In the recent scandals, the law is moving to punish those who have acted unlawfully, but the marketplace exacts its own punishment—imposes, arguably, a higher standard. For law breaking, executives can be jailed, but it only takes the taint of unethical behavior for whole corporations to be devoured, their economic and social value cut in half or reduced to zero.

Peter finds much in the liberal arts about how life tests us at every turn. For him the epic accounts of Homer and Spenser, the comedies of Shakespeare and Austen, and the narratives of Tolstoy and James are illuminating.

In the conclusion of his excellent essay, Peter puts it this way, “The great aim of the liberal arts....is knowledge of oneself. There is no higher wisdom to which we can aspire, nor more useful knowledge that we can possess.”