# 57: The Coaching Market and the Liberal Arts
Story behind the Passage
I got a request yesterday for a coaching session. The thing is: I cannot do it anymore. Yes, I am a trained (business) coach, even though I never turned it into a real business. I cannot make private people pay for it. I am just starting some detailed research on the entire issue but for the time being, I simply want to share some findings that might make some people quite mad, but I cannot help it. I write because I want to share my insights; maybe even my knowledge. And knowledge in the humanities/in philosophy is always subjective. It is not based on empirical data. It just emerges from the brain and heart of one individual. If I happen to make some people and writers on Medium mad — so be it.
John Dewey shaped my worldview, my thinking, my writing. I actually studied his writings a long time after I personally developed a pragmatic philosophical stance. It was more than just eye-opening for me to read that someone — not just Dewey, other classical pragmatists as well — had shared my thoughts and my view of life in such clear and deliberate words more than a century earlier. I am not saying I am a philosopher. I am saying that Dewey is important to me because of the impact he had on education philosophy and my education as well. And education, this much I know by now, is something that constantly occupies my mind. But Dewey is missing in Europe, especially in the German education philosophy and practice.
So, why link Dewey with coaching? Well, I could have chosen many passages from Democracy and Education. It is the book when it comes to understanding how education and democracy are interrelated. But I have chosen the passages on communication for a simple reason: communication is at the heart of coaching. Thought, there are many more aspects to it. All of them, as far as I read them, indicate the desolate state in which the German education system finds itself. We lost the liberal arts that were actually born in ancient Europe. And now we have to mess with the consequences of this loss post-Bologna.
“Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common.” I talked about coaching and the liberal arts above and now I am introducing more thoughts on communication. So, let us take this argument step by step. That also means I need to clarify what I mean by the different concepts. Yes, that is so scholarly, so brainy, so complicated — how annoying! Well, guess what, this is the first lesson to learn. Short, quick, and dirty might be fun for some people but these people are exactly the ones that lack some liberal arts basics — and maybe do not care about them. After all, I am not a priest. Conversion is not my mission.
So, when talking about the liberal arts, I simply mean the traditional education comprising the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the arts and humanities. In summar: multi-disciplinary. If you google the concept, you find all the details. Communication, as mentioned in the sentence above, has always formed one core pillar of the liberal arts, mostly referred to as rhetoric. Again, there is hardly any concept that has a longer history than this one and I can just encourage everyone to get into studying the theory and practice of rhetoric. For my purpose today, it would simply take me too far.
My argument today is simple: Since we lost the liberal arts education in Germany, coaching started flourishing. When talking about “coaching,” I mean it in the way that the International Coach Federation defines the concept:
“CF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” (ICF)
To make this very short definition a bit clearer: Coaching is resource-based, i.e., the solutions are assumed to be found in the coachee; the person being coached. The coach is in charge of the process. He/she steers that process by asking questions (not by giving advice as is the case in consulting). The entire process is based on a humanistic attitude on the part of the coach. So, what on earth does this have to do with the libereral arts, or rather, the lack thereof? Did Dewey invent coaching? Did he practice it?
In some way, yes.
When saying that we lost the liberal arts in Germany, I mean the gradual loss of the so-called “stadium generale” (general studies) which partly held up the ideal of the liberal arts. In addition, we also had study programs that at least made sure that people studied either two or three subjects in university. Translated into our language today, there was only a Master’s/Diploma, no Bachelor’s degree. These concepts only entered the scene with the European Bologna Process at the turn of the millennium. One major goal of the process was to achieve more comparability and common education standards in Europe, to also facilitate mobility.
When the process started, I was quite in favor of it. After all, I am very international; in my thinking, my friendships, my daily interactions. And since I knew that the U.S. always had a B.A./Sc. and M.A./Sc. system, I was not so worried. On the contrary, I really thought, with common degrees, a common language would make things easier and more transparent. From today’s perspective, I think, I was completely naïve. Still, I wanted to describe my initial attitude in order to show that I was not just some Bologna skeptic from the start who simply wanted to hold on to the old world.
What I am seeing nowadays, however, makes me worry. Again, I am not going into the facts and figures of what Bologna has done to higher education. You can google that extensively. What I want to explain now is how the two things — the loss of the liberal arts education and the rise of the coaching industry — are connected, at least from my perspective. I will do so by explaining which academic fields are behind coaching as a field of study, if you want to call it that way. Indeed, you can study coaching at universities. I myself did my training at a university of applied sciences. And I recommend getting a high-quality coaching training.
Still, since coaching is highly interdisciplinary and also taught that way, people might not always be aware which subject are included in the coaching curriculum. So, I will briefly list the most important fields of study. That does not mean that these are the only ones involved. But I want to keep it as concise as possible to then come back to my point about the liberal arts.
- Communication Studies: I would say, at least 80% of the content is derived from communication models. It starts with Schulz von Thun’s “four sides of a message” and ends with more nuanced leadership communication models.
- Psychology: This can hardly be separated from Communication Studies because there are so many overlaps. Carl Rogers, considered one of the founders of coaching, is famous for client-centered communication/therarpy. Especially leadership personalities and styles are directly derived from psychology. To underline one thing, however, and every good coaching trainer will highlight this from the start: A coach is not a psychologist because coaches do not diagnose people and they do not care about the past. Coaching is forward-looking.
- Business/Management Studies: This is again very closely related to leadership issues. The most important role that management studies play, from my perspective, is the general goal-orientation. Coaching is pragmatic in the most positive sense of the term. It is about achieving a defined goal within a certain period of time.
- Humanism: One might argue that communication studies and sub-fields of the above-mentioned subjects are also humanistic in nature, based on their history in the academy. From today’s perspective, however, these fields belong to the social sciences. Hence, when I say “humanism,” I am not referring to a particular field of study. I mean the foundational premises that underlie the coaching process. Everything is directed towards improving the situation of the individual. Cui bono?
So, is this a course on the history of higher education or what? No! Far from it. I would not even qualify for this. I simply wanted to show how much coaching builds on communication studies which is also why I started out with this particular sentence from Dewey. Furthermore, I wanted to declutter the term “interdisciplinary” by briefly showing which fields are involved exactly. If you look at these fields in conjunction, whereby psychology is very close to the natural sciences as well, you will notice that this mixture represents — yes, exactly, the LIBERAL ARTS.
“What they must have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge — a common understanding — like-mindedness as the sociologists say.” When talking about the liberal arts and values, “a common understanding,” it is clear that there is a mismatch today. Obviously, since the liberal arts have been pushed away by Bologna, this also means that the values that backed the liberal arts education must have been lost or at least transformed somehow. And I do see this. People in Germany refer to this as “narrow-gauge” studies (Schmalspurstudium): a Bachelor’s or even a Master’s degree that students earn after rushing through the curriculum at record speed, with the least effort to look at content outside their narrow study path and with the highest expectations of efficiency. You study to get credit points, not to learn, whereby learning once meant: becoming an educated citizen.
But the fact that these values and the related study content have been removed from university studies does not mean that they have been lost entirely. To the contrary, the value of humanism will never be lost as long as human beings walk the planet. The same holds true for knowledge about communication, for example. So, this is where you see my argument unfolding. When I say that coaching has been on the rise since the liberal arts declined, this is the link. We have lost the liberal arts but a new field emerged: coaching. It is basically a substitute. But there is one thing that is wrong with this substitute.
“The communication which insures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions.” If coaching were just a new field of study and an acclaimed profession, that would be alright. This is what happens. The world changed and with new needs on the part of human beings and new technologies, new fields emerge. The point is: coaching is NOT a profession, the concept is not protected (like consultant and even journalist). So, anybody can call him/herself coach. Well, that is not even my major concern, even though this abuse of the label can be harmful. My problem is that coaching has become an industry that is currently worth more than $15 billion, with rising tendencies (Moser).
Well, you might say, compared to other industries, this is not that big of a deal. But there are many related business effects to this. So many people are starting their own businesses based on whatever expertise they have and to then package this with a term that the clients can understand (at least they think), they call this coaching. Again, this is not illegal in any way. One might say: Fine, if people are willing to pay for this and they do not check if their ‘coach’ has a decent education, so be it, that is business.
Yes, that is true. What bothers me is that so much money goes down the drain for something that is quite simple. A huge part of coaching is about psychological hygiene. Most coaches and coachees will not like to hear this but that is how I see it. Yes, the main method of coaching is mirroring, in order to make the coachee learn to switch perspectives. Still, the immediate effect is psychological. And this result is closely related to the fact that communication and the relationship between coach and coachee play such an important role. This aspect relates to the “emotional dispositions” in Dewey’s quote.
When talking about the latter aspect of “switching perspectives,” it gets even more interesting. If you recall, the humanities are an essential part of the liberal arts curriculum and they are also highly relevant for coaching since the positive attitude towards the human being, e.g., an executive, a junior manager, etc., is key. Achieving this effect of making someone switch perspectives definitely creates individual short-term value, no doubt. The point is: Since many coaches, due to the lack of thorough education, miss the “intellect” to achieve this impact based on expert communication methods, the mirroring either stays on the surface or even worse, becomes some sort of pseudo-psychological caretaking.
All this freaks me out so much because coaching, to repeat this, is a business. So, in the end, even the coach with the best tools and a truly human attitude, needs to make sure that the client pays. This is o.k., not a problem, there is a market, obviously. What I simply want to highlight are two issues which, I think, simply need to be considered. 1) This entire business, except for psychological hygiene, does not create much solid value for society. And yes, the well-being of people is about physical and mental health. Sure, that is valuable. But I doubt that this in and of itself results in tangible assets and innovations. And simply feelind better does not replace any decent training. 2) The most important issue: This entire business would be superfluous if we fixed the education system and included at least certain elements of the liberal arts again!
What I mean by the latter thought, which forms the gist of my argument: People are only willing to pay for stuff they have no clue about or something that makes their life easier. The latter aspect is true for the emotional effect of coaching. This gets reinforced by the lamentable situation that people without a liberal arts training HAVE NO CLUE about the basic models of communication or the humanistic practice of discourse and self-reflection. Hence, to them, every stupid little tool that some coach has read in some self-help book looks like rocket science — and they pay.
Do you see the argument now and the scope of the economic magnitude?
As I stated at the outset, I have no empirical evidence for any causal relationship between the decline of the liberal arts in Germany and the rise of coaching. For sure, there are many other issues involved that have little to do with the education system. Maybe I am completely wrong. Nevertheless, my intention today was simply to raise awareness and to clarify which subjects are involved when we talk about coaching. Again, I am not saying coaching creates no value. I have a coach and I will continue coaching some people. Still, I would rather prefer to have everyone who graduates from university equipped with the basic “coaching” skills than witnessing an industry grow that, from my perspective, is gradually turning into the next economic bubble fueled by the lack of liberal arts knowledge of affluent but dim business customers.
Not to forget about the fact that universities, particularly all those graduate schools and clusters of “excellence” are increasingly investing in coaches to support junior scholars; also in the humanities!
What an irony of history. What a threat to our democracy. What a pity that there are no Deweys in our society.
Or are they just silent?
1) Do you see value in the liberal arts?
2) When spending money for business services, do you always check the background and qualification of the people delivering them?
3) Who do you usually ask for feedback when you really want to hear an honest opinion about your actions and/or ideas?