Better Blueprint Needed

Jason Fertig

As I read through Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, William M. Sullivan, and Jonathan R. Dolle’s Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Blueprint for a Better Business Curriculum,” at first it appeared to parallel my stance on the need for a more liberal arts approach to teaching business education. But as I read the piece further, our stances began to diverge in that these authors define a liberal education much differently than I do. 

 Colby et al. introduce their stance through an excerpt from their upcoming book, Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession:

To meet the needs of today's increasingly complex context, undergraduate business programs should help their students develop intellectual perspectives that enable them to understand the role of the field within the larger social world. In keeping with this aim, business programs should uphold and cultivate among students a sense of professionalism grounded in loyalty to the mission of business to enhance public prosperity and well-being. To accomplish this, business education must be integrated with liberal learning.

Amen brothers and sisters.   

Business education attracts a plethora of credential seekers rather than inquisitive minds. This lack of academic motivation leads to limited learning for the majority of business undergraduates except for those who are wise enough to seek out something more. David Glenn’s recent article in the Chronicle hit this point home hard. 

Because so many business students lack experience, they would be better served by a curriculum that develops their minds instead of one that offers a poor attempt at mimicking an internship. This is my modus operandi for teaching management as a history class vis-à-vis a dumbed-down theory class.

Colby et al. also rightly acknowledge that shifting business education towards liberal learning sounds good on paper, but implementing the change involves major hurdles:

Most business programs require their students to take a substantial number of courses outside the business disciplines, in classic arts and sciences fields such as English composition, literature, history, the social sciences, science, and mathematics. However, the relation of these studies to students' major courses in business is rarely well articulated or closely coordinated. The overall program as it stands now might be thought of as a curricular barbell: Each end of the bar carries a significant weight of intellectual subject matter, but the connection is slender. On the two ends of the barbell, students encounter courses taught by different groups of faculty, often from different schools or colleges, who have little contact with their colleagues on the other side of the curriculum. The linkages between the two ends of the barbell receive little explicit attention, either in the way the curriculum is organized or in how courses are taught.

When I advise students after they declare their business majors, many of them complain about having to spend two years in courses unrelated to their major and having to “read uninteresting stuff like Epic of Gilgamesh.” They wish they could have just jumped into their business education and get school over quicker. For these students, all of their core classes were a waste of time and money. Advising them after they have taken such courses has the feel of telling a young child that those Brussels sprouts that he ate were “good for him.” Hence, change starts with a better articulation of the big picture of undergraduate business education. 

Thus, I agree with Colby et al.’s definition of the problem, but not their solutions. 

My disagreement begins with this point:

Research on educational attainment provides abundant evidence that a college education produces significant lifelong effects. College is a prime moment for students, including many older students, to question and redefine their core sense of who they are. It offers the opportunity to expand their understanding of the world and to develop skills they will need to make their way in it.

Ideally, business education is more than vocational training. But do 21-year-olds really know who they are? I wish more of them would mature earlier, but we need a cultural revolution before Colby et al.’s point becomes more valid. 

Right or wrong, when I was in my early 20s, I couldn’t stand the thought of working 40+ hours a week for any reason. Statements like “once you start working, you’ll never have fun during the day on a weekday ever again” were loud and clear in my head – along with the heads of many of my peers. The only thing that defined my self-concept was having fun. 

Business undergraduates need less figuring out themselves and more figuring out how to be adults. 

To this end, I agree with David Brooks’s 5/31 New York Times column, “It’s Not About You”:

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

On top of misreading the student population, I question whether Colby et al. have a political agenda for their blueprint:

Today's educational challenge is to prepare students for a world in which ensuring the welfare of the human population must take place within a concern for planetary survival. In such a context, a college education needs more than ever to enable students to understand the world and find their place in it.

Planetary survival? Did I miss a warning of an impending alien invasion?

Come to think of it, is addressing a need to “save the planet” even a gap in current business school curricula at all? At every business department where I have taught, there is a variation on a “Business and the Natural Environment” course which is mostly a leftist-styled sustainability course. Additionally, most popular textbooks have chapters and sections devoted to diversity, sustainability, and “business ethics.” Thus, for this part of their blueprint for a better business education, the authors can place a check in that checkbox because it’s already there. 

Even with my disagreement, I can understand the reasons for proposing more emphasis on sustainability and self-discovery. But, this point perturbs me:

Indeed, we found it distressingly common, even in high-quality programs, to hear students say that their business courses had taught them that "everything is business"—overlooking the different values represented by their families, religious congregations, and communities.

Like all undergraduates, business students need the ability to grasp the pluralism in ways of thinking and acting that is so salient a characteristic of the contemporary world. And it is especially important that business students learn to recognize and distinguish between the dominant logic of business and the marketplace, on the one hand, and, on the other, the very different values and ways of acting that hold sway in the family and the domestic sphere, the worlds of science and education, the arts, and within a democratic government.

The only students who come out of business classes stating that they learned that “everything is business” are the ones who haven’t learned anything and need a cliché to make them sound sophisticated. I would grant Colby et al. this point if they conveyed that business majors spend too much time on quantitative equations that determine profit maximization when one can question whether maximizing profit (in a generic sense) is a proper goal. “Everything is business” belongs on the New York Times editorial page.

Furthermore, is there really a difference between the dominant logic of business and the ways of acting in the family? Households act in many ways like businesses. Most parents need to provide an incentive for children to take out the trash. 

The blueprint may need a trip back to the drawing board.

Teaching business as a liberal art begins with proper assessment. I know too many qualitative business classes that test using multiple choice exams on material from professors’ PowerPoint slides. I also shake my head at quantitative business classes that test using out-of-context math problems. In these classes, students spend the semester shifting curves and calculating p-values without knowing what those numbers mean.

Proper assessment involves students finding meaning in original sources, not waiting for the professor to fill in the blanks. It also involves writing, writing, and more writing. Companies are starting to realize how poorly business students write; even if a business education is vocationally-oriented, writing must be near the top of the required skills list.

On the flip side of this brainstorm, while it’s not my preference, it’s worth debating whether business should be taught from a liberal arts perspective at all. Much of business education is vocational, and perhaps reformers like Colby et al. should accept that rather than trying to change the world by teaching about population control in a computer programming class. 

Only certain schools have the resources and student body to successfully merge liberal arts with business. Perhaps it’s better for the rest of the academic world to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach that tries to make the four-year degree the be all and end all. Colleges could offer MIS (Management Information Systems) and Accounting as a two-year technical program for students solely in the market for technical training. Disciplines such as management which are more valuable to students with work experience could be limited to the graduate level or continuing education programs. In turn, students desiring more classical liberal education could consider non-business majors. Of course, business programs today are cash cows, and anything that decreases enrollment is not an easy sell.

Yet it’s better to ask these questions now, rather having a bursting higher education bubble force it to the forefront. Even though I disagree with much of Colby et al.’s depiction of better business education, I commend them for continuing the discussion. 

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