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Last week, I met with someone who works in the School of Business at Portland State University. Our meeting was to talk about a program at the university to help working professionals develop as leaders and about how we might team up, the School of Business and the School of Extended Studies, to offer a stronger program than either of us might attempt alone.

During our conversation, he shared a secret with me:  He thinks undergraduates who have their hearts set on careers in business should major in the Liberal Arts.  Why?  Because it isn’t useful to teach “business” to an undergraduate population that lacks knowledge of the context business should operate in.  We’re teaching these undergrads the form (profit-making, marketing) and leaving out the content (why a business is in business, the science, invention, contribution).  Without an underpinning of general knowledge (culture, literature, history), how can business leaders align organizations with purpose, inspire a workforce, or contribute to a greater good?

“Besides,” he went on to say, “you can’t teach an 18-year-old Organizational Behavior. When a teenager thinks about ‘behavior,’ it’s probably all the ways they’ve been in trouble in their young lives.  They have no context whatsoever for organizational behavior.” 

I’ve been happily surprised in recent weeks to discover how many people agree that an education in history, culture, science, language—anything other than the specific ways and wiles of commerce—is necessary for business people and, so far, mostly overlooked.  I admit I wasn’t expecting to hear it from within the walls of the School of Business, and maybe I’m telling a tale out of school.  But what a nice thought it is for a moment—an army of literate, well-rounded, maybe even ethical business leaders whose launch point was a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, linguistics, geography, or English, who then went on to graduate school to study finance, marketing, project management and, of course, organizational behavior.

One other heartening discovery this week:  The Carnegie Foundation is operating a three year project to “ensure that undergraduate students who major in business and other professional fields also gain the benefits of a strong liberal arts education” (http://carnegiefoundation.org/programs/index.asp?key=1862, accessed 30 August 2009).  The driver of this project, as it’s described on their site, is the increasing number of business undergrads, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.  I guess the assumption is, if your parents had a broad education, perhaps you’ve had some, too.  If you parents haven’t, then you’ve probably missed out on that and, tracking directly into a business program, you’ll continue to miss out on it.  Without it, our future business leaders “will not gain the intellectual, moral, and civic learning they need to be responsible individuals and members of their communities.”

So that’s more good news, not just for business but for students of the humanities.  If you’re working your way through studies of language and literature, you already know how much richer you are for having done so.  What you may not have been aware of is that some people in key places have noticed the same thing, and can take it a step further than you can.  They see your education as valuable to business, and this can be just the groundwork you need to put your degree to work.

4 thoughts on “From the Business School – a Confession

  1. Pingback: The University of Phoenix – Business model mystery solved « http://frrl.wordpress.com

  2. GREAT discussion! Here are my thoughts.

    The Carnegie Foundation’s work may very well impact the core education in American business schools. That would be the aspiration. Perhaps the focus should shift from the notion of eliminating undergrad programs to beefing them up with critical thinking, for example. What the Carnegie group means by “liberal thinking” is not adding Shakespeare or Voltaire to a business education. In fact, they are very specific about what should be included in training undergrads and it comes in the form of pedagaogical styles rather than content. Their notion of liberal thinking is four forms of perspective: dialetic, analytic, reflective and practical. I’m curious about the author’s and her associate dean’s notions on this. By “liberal arts” do we mean “content” (majors in anthropology or the classics, for example) or “ways of knowing” (the Carnegie group’s proposition) and secondly, why not accept the challenge that business schools need to first give a good solid attempt at improving pedagogy before throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

  3. As you say, the Carnegie study says there are four forms of what they call “educational value”:

    1) Analytical thinking – translating events into general concepts and operate logically.
    2) Multiple framing (dialectical thinking) – discovering differing viewpoints.
    3) Exploration of meaning – using the first tow to ask “The Big Questions” like “Who am I?” “What is the world?” “What should one hope for?”
    4) Practical reasoning – Building on exploration of meaning – “How do I do this?” “When do I do this?” This last one leads to development of wisdom.

    Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Colby, two senior scholars on this project, say that Business and professional schools address the first two, but only liberal education addresses the latter two.

    I’m not an expert, just a very interested party. But it seems to me that exploring questions like “What is the world?” and “What should one hope for?” have to resort to the natural sciences, literature, culture, philosophy for answers—if there are answers. Beefing up programs by adding more critical thinking requires examples of critical thinking in action. Same goes for adding more dialectical thinking. And where better to discover different viewpoints than, say, in the interior monologues of complicated, compelling characters in literature?

    Personally, I’d like to see liberal arts students better prepared for the workforce and business students better prepared for “The Big Questions.” Which means liberal arts students may need to develop an understanding of cost of goods sold, process analysis, organizational metrics and cloud computing, while business students may need to discover a bit about Joseph Conrad, Plato and Carl Rogers.

  4. Dear Susan,

    I think you are exactly right about the role of “big questions” and the paucity of such opportunities to address those in a professional school. I guess I just want to make the point that one COULD aspire to create such opportunities in any classroom. And, for myself, I realize that it is a cop out to say it can’t be done in a business school setting to some degree. For example, I’m an assistant professor of management with a Ph.D. in Social and Organizational Psychology and an undergraduate major in German Literature. (They actually let me teach in the business school!) My problem is, quite honestly, a lack of personal vigilance toward bringing “big questions” into the classroom and a kind of laziness about developing a great course that transcends the “business and society” textbook from which we all teach. I have excuses for this! With just 10 weeks exposure to students and lots of general business content to cover, I act as if it isn’t possible to have them read a novel or catch a piece of theater that might trigger deep questions of what it means to be human. I try and I do have a few kind of unique tricks in the bag but your blog and the Carnegie work just reminds me that it can be done even better in spite of my constrained environment. So, in the end, my passion for this topic is all about me and what I’m not doing but wish to do better. I hate the thought that it wouldn’t be possible to achieve this within our own School of Business. What do you all think?

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