• August 28, 2015

Business Curricula Need a Strong Dose of the Liberal Arts, Scholars Say

Undergraduate business programs should be more deeply infused with the virtues of a traditional liberal-arts education, two scholars said here on Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"Business programs are often quite effective, but also terribly narrow," said William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, during a panel discussion. Narrow preprofessional programs, he said, do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.

Mr. Sullivan and several colleagues are leading a three-year study of how to revitalize the undergraduate business major, which is the nation's most popular. (More than 20 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States in the 2006-7 academic year were in business. This year's freshmen, however, may be a bit less keen on business degrees, according to a recent survey.)

Colleges often use "what you might call a barbell approach, with a weak connecting bar," Mr. Sullivan said. "In other words, you have business courses on one hand and some sort of liberal-arts distribution requirements on the other. These are taught by different faculty who have little communication with each other, often housed in different schools within the university."

Mr. Sullivan's study, which is formally known as the Business, Entrepreneurship, and Liberal Learning project, involves a close examination of 10 undergraduate programs that have tried to avoid the barbell syndrome by synthesizing business education with the liberal arts.

Models of Integrated Curricula

Even at those programs, Mr. Sullivan said, there is still often a disconnect between business and nonbusiness courses. Students sometimes perceive their liberal-arts courses as irrelevant to their career plans or as generally unserious.

Despite those challenges, the 10 programs do include courses and curricula that are worth emulating, said Anne Colby, who is also a senior scholar at the foundation.

She cited Franklin & Marshall College's department of business, organizations, and society, which emphasizes the sociology of organizations and the history of economic thought.

Ms. Colby also praised a course in professional responsibility and leadership that is required of all seniors in New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

"The course asks students to consider the role of business in society and the ethics of acting as a business professional," she said. "It includes case studies from business, but also classic liberal-arts texts, including Chekhov, Walt Whitman, Confucius, Plato, Cicero, and Machiavelli."

Mr. Sullivan said that while business programs should embrace the liberal arts, it is equally true that liberal-arts programs have things to learn from business and other preprofessional fields.

He said that in visiting the 10 programs in this study, he was sometimes struck by how much stronger the instruction was in business courses than in liberal-arts courses. In business courses, students often actively worked on simulations and other group projects. "When well done, that kind of active learning can be extremely effective," Mr. Sullivan said. "But rarely did the students encounter anything remotely as powerful in their liberal-arts courses."

More broadly, Mr. Sullivan argued that liberal-arts programs should help students cultivate "practical reasoning" and prepare them for the world of work.

"Students need to experience engagement with the world so that they grasp the practical, personal, and moral significance of what they are learning," Ms. Colby and Mr. Sullivan wrote in a recent essay.

Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Colby's project will be summarized in a forthcoming book that is tentatively titled "Preparing for Business, Learning for Life: Liberal Arts and Undergraduate Business Education." The foundation expects to publish the book in 2011.


1. hurricane - January 22, 2010 at 09:07 am

In retirement, I continue to be stunned (though I probably shouldn't be) by people in pre-professional programs and professional programs who don't understand the point of an education. While students may pick up some skills that are directly applicable along their road to a degree, very few of those skills will be useful beyond their first job. But, learning how to learn, understanding how to evaluate materials, and being agile (good word for this situation) are skills that nearly all of us need and use in good measure for the rest of our lives. Even people who choose not to get a college degree benefit from having those skills which is a measure of how critical they are.

2. barbzirk - January 22, 2010 at 09:53 am

I second that!

3. oldflowerchild - January 22, 2010 at 10:28 am

Well stated. However, as I learn after all these years, most of us never understand the concept of post secondary (tertiary) education. This is especially true since any vocational learning was taken out of the high schools and students were taught that college was the "be-all, end-all" goal every one should have. Not everyone needs, or wants, a four year degree to be successful in life. Thus, many of the colleges, like it or not, are more vocational in training.

Undergraduates are taught a vocabulary and maybe some rudimentary skills in a given field, Masters students are taught some functional skills to be applied, and doctoral students are then taught to analyze (research)...

But, did any of us get this as we were going through the process? One of the key points that I find interesting is the quality of teaching concept that seems to engage more in the business curricula than in the liberal arts curricula. That seems to be the place to start and to educate students as to what they can really expect to achieve by engaging in any particular course of study.

Students, parents, educators, etc. should be clear as to why they re pursuing a particular course of study and what they can expect to get at the other end. That doesn't mean humanities, arts, or social sciences should be eliminated or even diminished, but rather they need to be put into perspective of society... all are good and legitimate courses of study, but we can all learn from the different silos on campus.

4. dlu39503 - January 22, 2010 at 10:53 am

I disagree with Hurricane's comment. Most business faculty (as an example) that I know try to provide students with general models that stand the test of time. They may do this using contemporary examples, but the underlying models have been around for years. Also, although faculty use current examples for problem solving and decision making, the processes for performing these activities remain relatively constant over time. In addition, accredited business programs often integrate ethical decision making in a variety of courses to ensure students have exposure to these topics.

5. drkaj - January 22, 2010 at 10:55 am

Many (perhaps even most) who already know the value of the liberal arts will agree with the article's findings and assertions, but when will the decision-makers in business schools and departments across the country concur? More importantly, when will their concurrence effect real curricular change?

6. drkaj - January 22, 2010 at 11:04 am

To oldflowerchild: It isn't the 4-year degree itself that is or isn't necessary to "success" in life--however we may choose to define that term. It is the skills in reading, writing, and thinking with any degree of sophistication that are necessary.

Your assessment of the types of learning acquired at various degree levels--"Undergraduates are taught a vocabulary and maybe some rudimentary skills in a given field, Masters students are taught some functional skills to be applied, and doctoral students are then taught to analyze (research)..."--seems unnecessarily cynical. Surely the application of functional skills and the ability to analyze and research are essential for any educated person. Are you suggesting "No Child Left Without a Doctoral Degree"?

7. 11261897 - January 22, 2010 at 11:15 am

The "World in 2010" issue of THE ECONOMIST featured a column arguing that the economic collapse of 2008-09 ought totally to discredit the MBA, thereby "cutting off the bulls**t at the source." Sounds like some other folk are getting the message, too!

8. tgroleau - January 22, 2010 at 02:39 pm

No undergraduate program can accomplish everything.

On one side we're told to incorporate more liberal arts into the business curriculum. On the other side we've got business advisors telling us that our graduates need more specific business skills. We've also got increasing pressure to find full-semester internships for every student (after all, they don't really learn anything in the classroom). Then there's an internal battle over teaching "this is what works" versus "this is why it works". Oh - don't forget that nearly everyone in the business college/department has a pet course or topic that they want to require every student to take.

Good luck fitting all of that into 4 years. If we can challenge the students to think, write, and analyze then we've accomplished something. Maybe we shouldn't get too hung up on whether it happens in marketing, sociology or philosophy.

9. amgaug - January 22, 2010 at 05:27 pm

The first day of my Microeconomics course, the professor began with a lecture on the demerits of (other) social sciences. He made the bold, but not uncommon statement that Econ was a science based on thorough objectivity and rationale.

Second order of business was telling 250 students about the positive effects outsourcing and cheap foreign labor has on our economy. Some would label this preachy.

These sort of teachings not only underscore the tiny window for which business educators operate, but it creates a divide amongst students who believe their cause is more noble than their peers. The stereotype of heartless, conservative business majors is enriched, as well as the stereotype for bleeding heart liberal arts majors.

10. jffoster - January 22, 2010 at 07:53 pm

Many have found Economics to be by far the most ethnocentric of the Social Sciences.

11. stinkcat - January 22, 2010 at 08:09 pm

What's your point?

12. oakfarm - January 22, 2010 at 08:28 pm

Carnegie and the AACU are blind to or ignorant of the fact that any accredited business school has a liberal arts core that is usually exactly the same as the one required of liberal arts students. Not just distribution requirements, three, six or eight courses, but usually twenty liberal arts courses. Further, the ideals of a liberal arts education are found in the business core courses -- not necessarily economics -- where the students get a good dose of math, statistics, law, psychology, organizational behavior, ethics and other social science and humanities-based lessons. The irony is that critics of business education not only know little or nothing about business curricula, they almost universally have never taken a single business course, let alone a degree in business. And business provides the modern liberal arts lessons of critical thinking, global exposure, writing and speaking persuasively.

Years ago I sat on a university core curriculum committee and the committee discovered that only business students already had all the course that the university wanted to require in the core curriculum. While liberal arts claims to prepare students for life, while charging that business schools only prepare students for a career, those liberal arts professors don't realize that universities can and must do both, and that is what business schools do. A career without a life is empty; a life without a career is tragic.

13. goodeyes - January 23, 2010 at 10:43 am

Business students at most universities take a large number of liberal arts courses. The real problem is that liberal arts students sometimes take no business courses. I have never seen any required of them. This business lack of knowledge not only limits their careers but limits their knowlege for critical thinking.

14. octoprof - January 24, 2010 at 09:49 am

So many liberal arts professors commenting blindly on majors they know nothing about. What is up with that? Business majors take a significant number of liberal arts courses at practically every college. Business professors teach broadly integrative models and problem solving (sound familiar) in most colleges. I have no idea why a group of liberal arts professors thinks it needs to drastically change a curriculum about which it knows very little.

15. stinkcat - January 24, 2010 at 11:53 am

"This business lack of knowledge not only limits their careers but limits their knowlege for critical thinking."

I think you raise a good point. Almost everyone could benefit from a corporate finance course, after all, who couldn't stand to benefit from learning the process of deciding whether an investment (such as a graduate degree) is likely to be a good idea or not. On the other hand, I shudder at the idea of teaching the subject to social workers and english majors, some of them just seem to have brains that are not wired for business and quantitative topics.

16. lauralcrum - January 24, 2010 at 01:40 pm

The liberal arts are so incredibly important! A college education should encompass the arts and the sciences together. A trade school is the better place to just learn your part.

17. subcrea - January 25, 2010 at 11:56 am

As someone who majored in English and who loves the liberal arts, I nonetheless take issue with the notion that study of the liberal arts (at least in this day and age in most institutions) will improve people's "moral engagement" (whatever that is). Or do we have data suggesting even a correlation between liberal arts study and morality? Oh wait, we can't even agree on whether morality exists and if so, upon what it should be based.

18. universityakron - January 26, 2010 at 10:42 am

It is amazing how little some liberal arts advocates know about business curricula. Oakfarm, Goodeyes, and Octoprof are the only valid observations about the breadth of coursework required of business majors. For most accredited business schools at least half or more of their coursework consists of liberal arts courses. I know of no serious business professor who would have it otherwise. It is hoped with such a strong liberal arts foundation, the rigorous and integrative courses taught in business schools will further emphasize the reasoning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for today's challenging global business environments (yes, business students take multicultural diversity courses as well). And their business curricula is very dynamic and in a constant state of flux to maintain its currency and relevance. Such a background should prepare business students not only for long and successful business careers but also to be able to vote wisely on national, state and local issues, most of which have a strong focus on job creation, economic development, and other issues with major financial implications.

While I think this continuing concern about the content of business curricula is healthy and desirable, I also feel it is equally important that liberal arts majors receive a more balanced curricula related to their professional aspirations and their voting responsibilities in a democratic republic. The amount of naivete out there is not limited to people with business degrees. Why are the liberal arts advocates so silent on this issue?


19. oimyakon - January 28, 2010 at 03:27 pm

I teach in a business school. While undergrads do get the two-year general curriculum before entering the b-school, the business curriculum does little to remind students of it. I have worked very hard to truly integrate fine and performing arts, literature, history, and philosophy into my business courses in the form of readings, examples, subjects for analysis, and events.

A few business students don't get the point, but most crave it. Business faculty are essentially the reverse--some think it's great, but others don't respect it. Regrettably, they have no idea how much work I have invested in it.

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