Entrepreneurial Skills for Students in the Humanities

Entrepreneurial Skills for Students in the Humanities

When you move across academic circles, you notice a general discontent about the state of Higher Education. The complaints are shot from all quarters. The professors are lamenting the good old age when they had time for research. The lecturers are complaining about the burden of becoming jacks of all trades. The administrators feel like they are second class citizens in a university that still nurtures medieval hierarchies. And they all complain about the students who exhibit a newly acquired customer mentality.

Of course, the students are the university’s customers. They pay for its infrastructure, professorial salaries, lecture halls and marketing campaigns. In return, they receive proof that they were trained in a specific sector. The proof is stamped by a university that may have a long standing reputation in national and international communities (or not). In effect, the university becomes the guarantee of the student’s knowledge.

Despite the university’s attention to student experience, high quality knowledge and advanced learning systems, students remain unconvinced of its value. And with good reason! When they finish their studies, they expect to find a full time job that could pay for their basic expenses as well as the exorbitant loans they already acquired. Reality, though, does not meet their expectations. In most cases, they end up in unpaid internships or dead end part time jobs. They stay in this predicament until they gain enough work experience to start moving up the ladder or across different sectors.

Why do universities fail to cater to the needs of their students and future employers? It is evident that they have the resources and the human potential to provide for what their customers want. And yet, they seem to react spasmodically and without a clear plan for the future. Surely, some of the brightest people I know (who are incidentally in academia) could come up with a path to change.

In this case, I believe that the problem is emotional rather than intellectual. Change is the key word in this equation. The fear of change permeates large organisations and its institutionalised people. However, the fear of the unknown could cause unprecedented failures in moving ahead with the times.

And this is exactly what academics and university administrators need to do. They have to recognise that we no longer live in the Industrial era. Instead, we are moving into a very disruptive phase of the Digital Revolution. Changes happen fast and alter radically the world as we know it. The revolution affects all aspects of our lives, both professionally and personally.

In the business world some inspiring influencers already identified the need for change and they are taking steps to a different direction. One of the first measures they took, and should be noted by universities, is that they no longer hire graduates for their skills. Instead, they hire them for their attitude.

In a fast changing world skills need to be updated continuously. As a matter of fact, slow paced research, in some disciplines, cannot keep up with developments in the real world. By the time journals and university presses go through the external readership, editing, and copy editing process, ‘innovative’ ideas are already obsolete. Similarly, the skills some students are taught no longer reflect what society needs by the time they leave university.

The only solution to this problem is to focus on the student’s attitude, personality, the so called ‘soft’ skills (that are neither soft, nor insignificant). In the 21st century what we need is problem solving abilities, communication skills, creativity, team working, inspiring leadership and analytical tools. Of course, all of these can be found as separate elements in individual disciplines. However, no curriculum brought them together in a coherent lot. Even worse, neither students nor teachers fully understand how these can be identified and applied in real situations.

As I was wondering along the paths of my ‘history oriented’ mind and the very real business world, I became aware of the power of entrepreneurship, not as a money making opportunity but as an attitude forming one. For the past three years I mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs. While I ‘supervised’ their projects, I noted how their cognitive and emotional skills developed. And I became truly and utterly surprised! I never expected that a simple business development exercise could bring about such life altering results.

I became especially astonished when PhD students started describing my programs as ‘a life altering experience’ or ‘a crash course on real life survival skills’. So, I decided to dig a little bit deeper into the process I was following. This is when I realised that they showed their appreciation not for the knowledge I was disseminating but for the experience I allowed them to have. I obviously touched them at an emotional level and I helped them develop as people, not just as learning machines.

This is, of course, one of the reasons I abandoned Economic History for the sake of Applied Entrepreneurship. I do not value theoretical models any less. I just value the application of knowledge a lot more than I used to. And so do my startup/ students.

Based on my recent experiences, I took a massive leap. I created a series of virtual programs on entrepreneurship that can be used as part of University courses. The idea was that the students of individual departments or across a College can create their own products or services, so that they build around them a viable business. This does not mean that every one of them would become a business owner. Most probably they would just get the right entrepreneurial skills they need to find the job that they deserve. Such skills (to my mind) would certainly make them more employable.

But then, I experienced the shock of my life. I expected that humanities departments, especially in history and philosophy, would be the first to take up the challenge. After all, their students end up in managerial positions and they are the most skilled to run their own business (due to the high quality of their analytical thinking). I was wrong. It was Computer Science, Maths, and Physics departments that showed the most interest.

I requested advice on the reasons behind such a low interest in entrepreneurship exercises. I received a combination of answers but none of them seemed to be entirely convincing. Most of them cited the students’ indifference. Others commented on the conservative structure of their curriculum. To tell you the truth, they all sounded more like excuses rather than actual reasons. Is it possible that the Humanities devotees are less forward thinking that their Science counterparts?

And yet, I can see clearly the need for a change in direction in the Humanities. Analysing the theoretical frameworks of Tacitus, or synthesising economic data in a coherent lot may be a good exercise in analytical thinking. However, it still does not bear a clear connection with the real world. The invaluable skills that humanities education provides can be highlighted only through the prism of relevant life experiences. And I will continue fighting across these lines.

For those of you who are curious about what I am doing with my life after academia, check out my site http://startdoms.com . At this point in time, I am dedicated to entrepreneurship and its infinite potential for changing our world.

Economic historian and numismatic consultant

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