Thursday, June 2, 2011

Liberal arts and the narrowness of 'business education'

I've always been skeptical about the notion of a business major: As I've joked with a colleague of mine, business programs could easily be renamed 'White Collar Studies'. It's long struck me as a generic major, what students choose when they want a college degree, but not in anything particular. As this NYT article puts it, it's now the default major for those who see their education in purely instrumental terms, as a long stint of internship or networking that positions them for their first post-college job. Nowadays 1 in 5 students is a business major, and another concern is just how seriously universities take business education. From the NYT article:
...with large student-faculty ratios and no lab equipment, business has historically been cheaper to operate than most departments. Cynics say many colleges are content.  “At the big public universities, the administrations need us to be credible, but I’m not sure that they need us to be very good,” says J. David Hunger, a scholar-in-residence in the management program at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, in Collegeville, Minn. “They need us to be cash cows.” 
And lastly, as our Academically Adrift series highlighted, academic rigor is a definite issue. This graphic says it all.

But thankfully, the trend in undergrad business education seems to be in the direction of integrating more liberal arts into the business curriculum. IHE reports today on a Carnegie study that concludes
that a more concerted focus on teaching students a set of modes of thinking commonly associated with a liberal arts education – analytical thinking, exploration of issues from different perspectives, reflective exploration of meaning, and practical reasoning -- can greatly improve business education.

The puzzling thing for readers of this blog is why this discussion keeps happening. As Chris has pointed out over his way, what business leaders say they want undergraduate education to provide (critical thinking, analytical reasoning and writing, etc.) is precisely what liberal arts instruction is supposed to provide. So why this ongoing debate about the place of the liberal arts in business and professional education? The IHE piece again, proposing a gap between the short term goals of education and the long term interests of students and employers:

But the Carnegie report highlights part of the debate about what the focus of undergraduate professional education should be. On one hand, students with more specific skills, such as knowledge of Microsoft PowerPoint, statistical analysis software, or lab technology, are more likely to get in the door. On the other, employers repeatedly say that students with a well-rounded education are more likely to advance in the workplace. But striking a balance between those competing ideals is tough when students only have a few years in college, and critics say that students tend to focus on short-term credentials rather than their long-term interests.
I've certainly observed this short-term thinking from students: They talk often of "getting a job" after graduation — no doubt an understandable and laudable goal. But few talk about their futures in the longer run, about how they'll get promoted, how they'll survive when (not if!) downsizing comes, etc. Wouldn't it be great if the business curriculum aligned with the apparent interests of students, their future employers, and colleges and universities?

1 comment:

  1. I think the credentialing-signalling issue is crucial here. Companies *say* they want critical thinkers, etc., and that may even be true (I actually have my doubts), but when they are recruiting, they are going to look for people who actively want to contribute to a business's success (and their own business success). Getting a diploma that has "Business" or "Management" on it signals that intent and commitment much more directly than one with "English" or "Philosophy."

    Further, I can say after having taught at business schools, that the idea that a business degree is "practical" (as opposed to the abstractness or theoretical nature of a philosophy degree, for instance) is very much oversold. At the UG level, most students will have little relevant real business experience to hang their studies on and to orient them when they take a class in, say, management. These courses tend to be *in effect* almost as "theoretical" as philosophy classes, since they are often like sitting through lectures on how to ride a bike or how to juggle. Much of its ends up being very abstract, and business professors' reliance on case studies does not do much to remedy this.

    All that said, in my ideal university, there would be no business majors, but a universal requirement to take a couple of courses such as Finance, General Managment, and Accounting. Knowing this sort of stuff, even at a low level, is part of knowing the nuts-and-bolts of the social world.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!