Peer Review

The Practical Side of Liberal Education: An Overview of Liberal Education and Entrepreneurship

A liberal arts education might be viewed as a metaphor for entrepreneurship. The humanities suggest that the entrepreneur is an artist. History might see entrepreneurs as the true revolutionaries of technological, economic, and social change. A liberal arts education is rich in metaphors that are capable of capturing the multifaceted life of an entrepreneur. A course in film or the theatre might suggest that the entrepreneur is a stage or film director, while a course in physical education might reveal the entrepreneur as a coach. . . . Undergraduate entrepreneurship education should not be viewed as a narrow careerist pursuit, but as giving new life to the traditions of a liberal arts education.
—Dennis Ray, "Liberal Arts for Entrepreneurs"

Many campuses are experimenting with introducing entrepreneurship into their curriculum in addition to empowering students through campus leadership programs and civic engagement projects that cast students and faculty in entrepreneurial roles. Leadership studies, student programs for responsible civic engagement and service learning, and entrepreneurship programs provide a nexus for new initiatives that will enrich both liberal education and the study and practice of entrepreneurship.

The following assumptions underlie my analysis. First, entrepreneurship is a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry and a curricular component that need not be limited to certain departments or schools or to colleges of business. Second, the fundamental elements of a liberal education are essential to the development of an "entrepreneurial mindset." And third, both the study of entrepreneurship and the goals of liberal education can derive mutual benefit from curricular and extracurricular initiatives that seek to link the two enterprises.

The ideal liberally educated student of the twenty-first century is a lifelong learner who is open-minded, tolerant, intellectually curious, courageous, self-actualizing (with the capacity for attaining personal growth, physical and mental health, and spiritual well-being). He or she values education for its own sake, the natural world, the rights of other individuals, the richness of diverse cultures and peoples, the need for community, and the common good. As a learner and citizen, the liberally educated person is actively engaged with the world in all of its complexity, diversity, and dynamism. Such an individual is characterized by an attitude of openness and curiosity, and seeks to make a positive contribution to the future of humankind. In discussing liberal education in comparative and historical contexts, Sheldon Rothblatt observes that one of the traditions of liberal education has been leadership: "As one of the oldest traditions of liberal education, preparation for political leadership dates back to the Greeks and is connected to holism and character formation" (2003, 28).

Civic Engagement

One of the most powerful developments in liberal education in recent years has been the emergence of a renewed commitment to service learning and civic engagement on campuses across the country (for an overview of these developments, see Schneider 2000). One of the most visible examples of this is the organization Campus Compact (, which currently boasts one thousand member institutions with a wide and growing array of programs designed to promote civic engagement. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has produced numerous publications and initiated several programs designed to help colleges and universities link liberal education to citizenship and work and encourage experiential learning and applied research through faculty-student-community partnerships. In fact, in 2003, Campus Compact and AAC&U partnered to establish the Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement to help put civic learning at the heart of students' academic experience and faculty work. One of the best examples of this kind of institution is Portland State University, which is a model of the engaged, urban university that builds on a general education foundation in the liberal arts and extends to a plethora of programs designed to immerse students in their community in mutually beneficial ways. (For other examples, see the list of colleges and universities provided in Colby et al. 2003.)

As more liberal arts colleges and universities encourage this kind of engagement, students will become better informed about the many challenges we face in society and will understand why new ideas, new techniques and technologies, and new solutions are called for. When coupled with the empowering liberal education they are receiving on campus, these off-campus, cocurricular learning experiences will prepare them well to take on responsibilities of leadership and to become the entrepreneurs we need in both our workplaces and our communities.


According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (2001), "Today, more than 1,500 colleges and universities offer some form of entrepreneurship training. . . . Interest in entrepreneurship education has spread to non-business disciplines, where students in engineering, life sciences and liberal arts are interested in becoming entrepreneurs." Although liberal arts is mentioned in the Kauffman documents, the reality is that relatively few institutions that are committed to liberal education have participated in this dramatic trend, outside of business programs and engineering and the life sciences. If entrepreneurship education is to realize its full potential, this last group—the liberal arts—must be drawn into the dialogue.

The burgeoning new field of entrepreneurship education includes not only business-related entrepreneurship, but also social entrepreneurship. The more recent concept of social entrepreneurship resonates particularly well with the goals of liberal education. Gregory Dees (1998, 5) suggests that social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by

  • adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value);
  • r ecognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission;
  • engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning;
  • acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand;
  • exhibiting a heightened sense of accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.

Because liberal education is committed to educating for responsible citizenship, there is a special affinity between liberal education and social entrepreneurship, as Bill Drayton demonstrates in his article in this issue. As former CEO of General Motors Roger Smith concludes in his article "The Liberal Arts and the Art of Management," "The ultimate impact of the liberal arts on the art of management, then, is a major contribution to the evolution of an ethical and humanistic capitalism—a system that stimulates innovation, fosters excellence, enriches society, and dignifies work" (Smith 1987).

Creating the Synergies We Need for Innovation

As Dennis Ray has argued, the liberal arts college or university offers the opportunity for a holistic educational experience that is well suited to the needs of the potential entrepreneur, primarily because the would-be entrepreneur needs to encounter a wide variety of perspectives, paradigms of inquiry, and ethical norms and develop the critical thinking and communication skills normally associated with the "liberally educated student." Proponents of liberal education are equally dedicated to providing students with the opportunity to become independent, active learners who are capable of charting their own course over a lifetime and are engaged in an ongoing process of learning. The ideal liberal arts education models a process of continuous adaptation and innovation that is manifest in one's personal and professional life. Thus liberal education really is, as Ray contends, a "metaphor for entrepreneurship."

When we link leadership, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement, we recognize that although they are distinct, they also can be combined to produce powerful results that are greater than the sum of the parts. We need a different type of leadership to achieve this. Capra (2002) sees this as leadership that "consists in facilitating the emergence of novelty. This means creating conditions rather than giving directions, and using the power of authority to empower others. . . . Being a leader means creating a vision; it means going where nobody has gone before. It also means enabling the community as a whole to create something new. Facilitating emergence means facilitating creativity."

This is the kind of academic leadership and entrepreneurship that we need to create new synergies between the discrete areas we have been discussing. At one level—the level of the curriculum—there are exciting possibilities for exploring leadership and entrepreneurship in combination with civic engagement. Leadership programs for students, when combined with curricula that focus upon leadership and entrepreneurship and then coupled with extracurricular programs that engage students with their communities, can produce liberally educated social entrepreneurs who are committed to addressing social problems through innovative solutions that are empowering and produce value-added outcomes.

Building Campuses, Cultures, and Curricula for Innovation

The study of leadership and entrepreneurship and the "best practice" of civic engagement are potentially linked in important ways. As Burton Clark (1998) has shown in his study of five European universities and as we know from initiatives taken at a number of American institutions represented in this issue of Peer Review, there are many opportunities for both profitable ventures and for "social entrepreneurship" directed toward solving social problems and meeting consumer or constituent demand. Efforts to bridge the liberal arts and the professions, far from threatening either, can serve to create new, exciting partnerships and interdisciplinary paths of inquiry and service learning that will repay the effort for all involved. At the College of Charleston, we are seeking to promote these efforts through a Consortium for Liberal Education and Entrepreneurship with funding from the Kauffman Foundation. In doing so, we hope to capture what Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, asserts: "Creative intellectual energy . . . drives our system forward . . . . The liberal arts embody more than a means of increasing technical intellectual efficiency. They encourage the appreciation of life experiences that reach beyond material well-being and, indeed, are comparable and mutually reinforcing" (Greenspan 2003, 53).

Samuel M. Hines Jr. was a co-convener of the pre-conference symposium, "Working Convergences: Liberal Education, Creativity, and the Entrepreneurial Spirit," at the 2005 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.


Capra, F. 2002. The hidden connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

Clark, B. 1998. Creating entrepreneurial universities: Organizational pathways of transformation. New York: IAU Press and Elsevier Science, Ltd.

Colby, A., T. Ehrlich, E. Beaumont, and J. Stephens. 2003. Educating undergraduates for responsible citizenship. Change 35 (6): 40–48.

Dees, J. G. 1998. The meaning of social entrepreneurship.

Greenspan, A. 2003. Remarks on the liberal arts. Liberal Education 89 (3): 52–53.

Hines, S. M. 2003. Leadership studies, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship: Exploring synergies on the practical side of liberal education. Paper presented at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the Consortium for Liberal Education and Entrepreneurship.

Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. 2001. The growth and advancement of entrepreneurship in higher education: An environmental scan of college initiatives.

Ray, D. 1990. Liberal arts for entrepreneurs. Educational Theory and Practice, (Winter): 79–93.

Rothblatt, S. 2003. The living arts: Comparative and historical reflections on liberal education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider, C. G. 2000. Educational missions and civic responsibility: toward the engaged academy. In Civic responsibility and higher education. ed. T. Ehrlich, Phoenix: American Council on Education/ Oryx Press, 98–123.

Samuel M. Hines Jr. is the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Charleston.

Previous Issues