The Kemper Scholars Program selects its students from liberal arts colleges for many reasons. A primary one is that the James S. Kemper Foundation’s founder, insurance magnate James Scott Kemper, believed graduates who made the best employees knew something about a lot of things and a lot about something. Because they know about a lot of things, they can see new and creative possibilities and are not stuck in a narrow rut of what they learned in their major. They are curious enough to follow up on such ideas and have the tools to do the research and thinking about them. As Mr. Kemper once put it, “I don’t want employees who have all the answers; I want employees who know which questions to ask.”
The curricula of most liberal arts colleges are built upon a broad-based general education (a lot of things) and a major (something in depth). Sometimes even students in liberal arts colleges don’t get it. Some seek to get the general education out of the way so they can concentrate on “what I like and am good at.” Others choose multiple majors because they think it will make them more marketable. What that does is severely limit their breadth of choice in courses. People looking at resumes care what you have done and can do, not whether you have three majors.
Warren Buffett is well-known as a wise investor and successful person, not least because he has earned billions of dollars by making good choices. In the late 1990s, Buffett’s investment company was criticized for not investing in technology firms. In Berkshire’s 1999 letter to shareholders Buffett wrote: “If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are operating well within our circle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter. Predicting the long-term economics of companies that operate in fast-changing industries is simply far beyond our perimeter.”
I think this comment suggests excellent advice for students in liberal arts colleges. It possesses three important kernels of wisdom:
- Try to be an expert at something. In most cases the subject won’t matter; the experience of prolonged and in depth study brings great value to the learner.
- Keep expanding the circle of your expertise. Branch out into new fields, especially if you think you are not good at them. Avoiding those will doom you to a very small circle of competence.
- Practice intellectual humility: know what you do not know. Socrates’ idea that the wisest person is the one who realizes how much he or she does not know remains as valuable and true as it was nearly 2,500 years ago. Intellectual humility helps us recognize that we do have limits to our competence, and it can help us avoid some very big mistakes.