Submitted by John Thelin on September 13, 2012 - 3:00am
Higher education of the 1960s usually brings to mind student rebellion and campus unrest. Berkeley and Mario Savio are often invoked to symbolize the era of colleges and the counterculture. But this is distorted because it is incomplete. Why not have a collective student memory that includes Mitt as well as Mario?
This seems counterintuitive to the counterculture -- but only because we have overlooked all the innovations that were taking place on American campuses in these tumultuous years. I want to make the case to add seats on the historical stage of higher education – especially with the upcoming November presidential election.
To truly understand the long-term legacy of the 1960s, we need to include Harvard’s Joint M.B.A. and J.D. program as the institution -- and its famous alumnus, Mitt Romney, as the individual – that also are part of the higher education lyrics when boomers are “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation.”
Scott McKenzie attracted a lot of listeners in 1967 when he sang, “If you come to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair....” Mitt Romney, however, was not listening and went in a different direction – politically and geographically. In 1969 he left San Francisco (well, Stanford and Palo Alto) and -- after a detour to France -- headed east to graduate school at Harvard for its brand-new joint M.B.A./ J.D. program, which was founded that year. The rest is history -- and no less than the higher education of perhaps our next president.
Put aside such artifacts as Steven Kelman’s memoir about student protest at Harvard in 1969-70 in his book, Push Comes to Shove. Forget James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement and its provocative subtitle, “Notes of a College Revolutionary.” Above all, suspend from memory the images of Harvard first-year law students as depicted in Hollywood’s The Paper Chase. It’s time to reconstruct the early years of Harvard’s joint M.B.A./J.D. program and its students, which were a powerful, albeit low-profile counter to the counterculture.
Harvard’s joint program brings to mind the academic equivalent of epoxy cement -- two ingredients (law school and business school) each of which is rigorous in its own right, and when mixed, create an incredibly hard bond -- probably impervious to broad humane or societal considerations. Two articles over the past six months in the New York Times provide some insights into both the joint program and into Romney as a graduate student: Jodi Kantor’s “At Harvard, A Master’s in Problem Solving,” and Peter Lattmann and Richard Perez-Pena's “Romney, at Harvard, Merged Two Worlds.”
As Lattmann and Perez-Pena wrote: “One of the most exclusive clubs in academe is a Harvard University dual-degree program allowing graduate students to attend its law and business schools simultaneously, cramming five years of education into four. On average, about 12 people per year have completed the program — the overachievers of the overachievers — including a striking number of big names in finance, industry, law and government. ...In addition to Mr. Romney, founder of Bain Capital, the roughly 500 graduates include Bruce Wasserstein, who led the investment bank Lazard until he died in 2009; leaders of multibillion-dollar hedge fund and private equity firms like Canyon Capital Advisors, Silver Lake Partners and Crestview Partners; high-ranking executives at banks like Citigroup and Credit Suisse; C. James Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company; and Theodore V. Wells Jr., one of the nation’s top trial lawyers.”
No doubt these graduate students were smart and worked hard. Beyond that, it’s important to note some characteristics that accompanied this program and its work ethic. First, the formal curriculum pulled inward rather than outward.
Second, Romney as a student in the joint program tended to screen out external events as distractions. According to Kantor, “And unlike Barack Obama, who attended Harvard Law School more than a decade later, Mr. Romney was not someone who fundamentally questioned how the world worked or talked much about social or policy topics. Though the campus pulsed with emotionally charged political issues, none more urgent than the Vietnam War, Mr. Romney somehow managed to avoid them.” Kantor reinforces this depiction by quoting one of Romney’s law school study partners, who recalled, “Mitt’s attitude was to work very hard in mastering the materials and not to be diverted by political or social issues that were not relevant to what we were doing.”
The program pushed toward intensive insularity using the case study pedagogy that relied on no books or contextual sources – all at a time when genuine interdisciplinary, broad perspectives were finding some breathing space in prestigious professional schools elsewhere. It’s too bad for the education of future business (and political) leaders that the joint program that started in 1969 did not consider the very different perspective offered by Earl Cheit, professor (and later, dean) of the business school at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1964, with support from the Ford Foundation, Cheit invited five scholars outside the field of business to join him in conducting a workshop that for the first time brought together business school professors with others to explore and preserve “the connection between the intellectual adventure and the business adventure.”
What a contrast to the Harvard Business School’s case study approach! Cheit’s Ford Foundation program at Berkeley featured, first as talks and later as readings, a cornucopia of ideas and issues, led off by the economist Robert L. Heilbroner’s “View From the Top: Reflections on a changing business ideology.” John William Ward, historian and president of Amherst College, spoke about “The Ideal of Individualism and the Reality of Organization.”
Henry Nash Smith of Berkeley’s English Department discussed businessmen in American fiction in the “Search for a Capitalist Hero.” Historian Richard Hofstadter asked, “What happened to the Anti-Trust Movement?” The economists Paul Samuelson and Cheit himself analyzed changing roles of business in how managers cultivate social responsibility – and how American society balanced personal freedoms and economic freedoms in a mixed economy.” Guest speakers from France and Belgium provided American businessmen with perspectives on business in Europe.
Cheit’s knowledgeable involvement in exploring the past and future of higher education did not stop with this Ford Foundation business program. In 1974-75 he sought (and received) permission to teach a graduate course in the School of Education – one in which he explored how it was that professional schools of business, agriculture, forestry, and engineering came to have a place in the American university. The course content and topic were so novel that it led to publication of a book by the Carnegie Commission, The Useful Arts and the Liberal Tradition.
Once again, it showed that an intellectual and administrative leader in the business school could look outward within the multi-versity and reach outward to the larger society and the economy by complicating the questions rather than doggedly seeking to solve business problems. Cheit also was one of the leading economists to sound an alert to the deteriorating financial condition of the nation’s colleges and universities in his 1971 book on higher education’s “new depression.”
In contrast, what were the aims and goals of the Harvard joint program? One observation provided by NYT reporters is revealing: “But former students and professors say it makes sense that a group of overachievers would be drawn to financial markets, a hypercompetitive field with the promise of immense riches.”
Really? Why were these overachievers necessarily confined to these goals? What if the teaching and discussion had included some consideration of ethics, public good, and social responsibility – along with pursuit of individual prosperity? It’s important to remember that there were good alternatives. For example, Cheit’s Berkeley approach with the Ford Foundation project was to create curiosity, exploration and reasonable doubt about our national obsession with business.
The Harvard joint program, especially its business school component, emphasized the sharpening of decision-making tools, especially in finance. Each, of course, has their place. But if a concern of a university is to ask, “Knowledge for what?,” it is Cheit’s Berkeley model more than Harvard’s joint program that is sorely needed for the thoughtful leadership, whether in business or politics, required for the early 21st century. I’ll be thinking about that on my way to the polls on Election Day in November.
John R. Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky. He was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley from 1969 to 1974. He is author of A History of American Higher Education (2011).
We hear these days of the "crisis of the humanities." The number of majors, jobs, and student interest in these subjects is dropping. The Boston Globe offered one report on the worries of the humanities in an article last year about the new Mandell Center at Brandeis University. The Globe asserted, "At college campuses around the world, the humanities are hurting. Students are flocking to majors more closely linked to their career ambitions. Grant money and philanthropy are flowing to the sciences. And university presidents are worried about the future of subjects once at the heart of a liberal arts education."
Such gloom must be placed in context. Doubts about the humanities have been around at least since Aristophanes wrote The Clouds. The playwright claimed that if a man engaged in the "new" Socratic form of teaching and questioning, he could wind up with big genitals (apparently seen as a negative side effect) due to a loss of self-control. But the Socratic humanities survived, in spite of the execution of their founder, through the schools of his intellectual son and grandson -- the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle.
I don't think that the humanities are really in a crisis, though perhaps they have a chronic illness. Bachelor's degrees in the humanities have held relatively steady since 1994 at roughly 12-13 percent of all majors. Such figures demonstrate that the health of the humanities is not robust, as measured in terms of student preferences. In contrast, the number of undergraduate business majors is steadily and constantly increasing.
So what has been the response of university and college leaders to the ill health of the humanities?
It has been to declare to applicants, students, faculty, and the public that these subjects are important. It has included more investments in humanities, from new buildings like the Mandel Center at Brandeis, to, in some cases, hiring more faculty and publicizing the humanities energetically. Dartmouth College's president, Jim Yong Kim, recently offered the hortatory remark that "Literature and the arts should not only be for kids who go to cotillion balls to make polite conversation at parties."
I couldn't agree more with the idea that the humanities are important. But this type of approach is what I call the "eat it, it's good for you" response to the curricular doldrums of humanities. That never worked with my children when it came to eating broccoli and it is even less likely to help increase humanities enrollments nationally today.
The dual-horned dilemma of higher education is the erosion of the number of majors in the humanities on the one hand and the long-feared "closing of the American mind" on the other, produced in part by the growing number of students taking what some regard as easy business majors. Yet these problems can only be solved by harnessing the power of culture, by understanding the ethno-axiological soup from which curriculums evolve and find their sustenance. Jerome Bruner has long urged educators to connect with culture, to recognize that the environment in which we operate is a value-laden behemoth whose course changes usually consume decades, a creature that won't be ignored.
It is also vital that we of the humanities not overplay our hands and claim for ourselves a uniqueness that we do not have. For example, it has become nearly a truism to say that the humanities teach "critical thinking skills." This is often correct of humanities instruction (though certainly not universally so). But critical thinking is unique neither to the humanities nor to the arts and sciences more generally. A good business education, for example, teaches critical thinking in management, marketing, accounting, finance, and other courses. More realistically and humbly, what we can say is that the humanities and sciences provide complementary contexts for reasoning and cultural knowledge that are crucial to functioning at a high level in the enveloping society.
Thus, admitting that critical thinking can also be developed in professional schools, we realize that it is enhanced and further developed when the thinker learns to develop analytical skills in history, different languages, philosophy, mathematics, and other contexts. The humanities offer a distinct set of problems that hone thinking skills, even if they are not the only critical thinking game in town. At my institution, Bentley University, and other institutions where most students major in professional fields, for example, English develops vocabulary and clarity of expression while, say, marketing builds on and contributes to these. Science requires empirical verification and consideration of alternatives. Accountancy builds on and contributes to these. Science and English make better business students as business courses improve thinking in the humanities and sciences.
If, like me, you believe that the humanities do have problems to solve, I hope you agree that they are not going to be solved by lamenting the change in culture and exhorting folks to get back on course. That's like holding your finger up to stop a tidal wave. Thinking like this could mean that new buildings dedicated to the humanities will wind up as mausoleums for the mighty dead rather than as centers of engagement with modern culture and the building of futures in contemporary society.
So what is there to do? How do we harness the power of culture to revive and heal the influence of the humanities on future generations? Remember, Popeye didn't eat his spinach only because it was good for him. He ate his spinach because he believed that it was a vital part of his ability to defend himself from the dangers and vicissitudes of life, personified in Bluto. And because he believed that it would give him a good life, represented by Olive Oyl.
Recently, an alumnus of Bentley told me over dinner, "You need business skills to get a job at our firm. But you need the arts and sciences to advance." Now, that is the kind of skyhook that the friends of the humanities need in order to strengthen their numbers, perception, and impact.
While I was considering the offer to come to Bentley as its next dean of arts and sciences, Brown University and another institution were considering me for professorial positions. Although I felt honored, I did not want to polish my own lamp when I felt that much in the humanities and elsewhere in higher education risk becoming a Ponzi scheme, which Wikipedia defines accurately as an "...operation that pays returns to separate investors, not from any actual profit earned by the organization, but from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors."
I wanted to make my small contribution to solving this problem, so I withdrew from consideration for these appointments to become an administrator and face the issue on the front line. And Bentley sounded like exactly the place to be, based on pioneering efforts to integrate the humanities and sciences into professional education -- such as our innovative liberal studies major, in which business majors complete a series of courses, reflections, and a capstone project emerging from their individual integration of humanities, sciences, and business.
Programs that take in students without proper concern for their future or provision for post-graduate opportunities -- how they can usewhat they have learned in meaningful work-- need to think about the ethics of their situation. Students no longer come mainly from the leisured classes that were prominent at the founding of higher education. Today they need to find gainful employment in which to apply all the substantive things they learn in college. Majors that give no thought to that small detail seem to assume that since the humanities are good for you, the financial commitment and apprenticeship between student and teacher is fully justified. But in these cases, the numbers of students benefit the faculty and particular programs arguably more than they benefit the students themselves. This is a Ponzi scheme. Q.E.D.
The cultural zeitgeist requires of education that it be intellectually well-balanced and focused but also useful. Providing all of these and more is not the commercialization of higher education. Rather, the combination of professional education and the humanities and sciences is an opportunity to at once (re-)engage students in the humanities and to realize Dewey's pragmatic goal of transforming education by coupling concrete objectives with abstract ideas, general knowledge, and theory.
I have labeled this call for a closer connection between the humanities and professional education the "Crucial Educational Fusion." Others have recognized this need, as examples in the new Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching bookRethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession illustrate. This crucial educational fusion is one solution to the lethargy of the humanities -- breaking down academic silos, building the humanities into professional curriculums, and creating a need for the humanities. Enhancing their flavor like cheese on broccoli.
Daniel L. Everett
Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University.
How universities are organized can confuse not only the sympathetic, casual observer of higher education but students and staff members as well.
One campus has a college of arts and sciences, another has separate colleges of sciences, humanities and social science. Microbiology can be in the college of natural resources and environment at one place, and in the school of sciences or the medical school somewhere else. Modern foreign languages appear organized in departments that encompass all of the modern foreign languages and their literatures, in departments devoted to Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, or other combinations.
Insiders know, however, that all of these organizational permutations reflect not only significant changes in the universe of knowledge but also internal structures of personality, politics, money and power as well as the external pressures of fad, fashion or funding. Academic reorganization is a frequent exercise on university campuses, and often generates tremendous controversy because each effort signifies a potential for gain or loss in academic positioning for money, power and prestige.
Although, to outsiders, the warfare that these reorganizations frequently provoke can often appear out of proportion to the stakes involved, insiders know that organizational structure can influence internal distributions of resources. Even more importantly for many faculty and students, the organizational structure serves as a prestige map.
Reorganizations that adjust the boundaries of campus subunits are among the most complicated of issues because often reorganization is a good and effective thing while in other cases that look almost the same, it is a scam. Reorganization as an internal political exercise occurs frequently, but so too do readjustments to reflect the expansion and redefinition of knowledge. Separating the substantive from the political requires some careful observation.
For example, the development of a subdiscipline into a major field of study is a complex and fascinating process that produces new departments such as computer science or biomedical engineering. The emergence of new departments or academic guilds follows the development of specific intellectual domains with their own methodology, journals, research agenda, and definition of the particular intellectual skills required to advance knowledge in that area.
The academic guilds eventually determine what new fields have reached sufficient maturity of methodology and intellectual focus to warrant separate status as departments, with the attendant definition of a specific set of requirements for the Ph.D. and often a particular pattern of courses for an undergraduate major. Often national funding agencies and research foundations help advance these changes by supporting research based in defined departments that can give the new research direction and continuity.
Although these intellectual advances often produce some controversy about the point at which a subfield deserves to recognition as a major discipline with its own department, much of the controversy turns on legitimate intellectual issues of methodology and academic substance. These represent significant efforts to readjust the academic world to match advances in knowledge and the organization of scholarship.
Other reorganizations represent mostly varieties of academic game playing. They reflect much less academic substance and instead turn on issues of politics, power, prestige and money.
The game often takes place in shadow form, with highly evolved intellectual arguments that underneath speak to the issues of prestige and money. If one department consolidates with another, the loss in academic status for the members of this consolidated unit can be devastating. Similarly, if a field gains separate bureaucratic status as an independent department, a substantial status gain results. It is much better to be a department of Spanish than a field within a department of Romance languages. It is much better to be a school of journalism than a department of the College of Arts and Sciences. The goal of these organizational transformations is for subgroups of like-minded faculty to have a seat at the institutional table for the distribution of resources, rather than to suffer the risk of having someone less sympathetic to their particular subdiscipline speak for them.
Other organizational anomalies reflect historical, accidental or opportunistic events. Some institutions, concerned that the traditional arts and sciences reflected a domain too large for effective administration, divided the disciplines into subgroups: humanities, social sciences, and sciences or some variation. In such cases, departments like history reside within either the humanities or the social sciences, depending on the intellectual fashion of historians at the time of reorganization.
Business schools can acquire business-like units, and a management school at one institution may include such programs as sports and hospitality management while in another these programs reside in colleges of human performance or continuing education or in separate freestanding schools of hospitality management. Music departments live within colleges of humanities and fine arts or exist as separate schools of their own depending on their size, their focus on performance as opposed to theory or history, and the accidents of their original founding.
Many campus leaders take on reorganization projects to try to align the bureaucratic structure of units with a clear sense of the institution’s academic mission. These efforts can provide a major focus of engagement for the campus, occupy faculty task forces and councils in heady debate, and then, after an extended period, produce a new organizational matrix.
The value of such reorganization varies. Sometimes reorganization can reduce the fragmentation of the campus produced by prior political warfare, consolidate micro-administrative units, and achieve some economies of scale in staff and management. In other cases, the reorganization simply serves to distract the campus from the need to work harder, better and more competitively. Reorganization changes take much time and energy and often substitute for the real work of requiring performance from the units. Reorganization is also a highly visible form of executive leadership that places senior administrators in publicity rewarding, take-charge roles.
The beauty of a reorganization initiative in this context is that it has no measurable outcome. No one has an obligation to demonstrate that the new organization is more effective than the old one, and even if it is more effective, the results will not appear for several years. Reorganization achieves the appearance of significant administrative leadership without an obligation to deliver any improvement in the quality or productivity of teaching or research. And refocuses everyone inward on the internal competition for position, place and money, diverting attention from the necessity of competing against the outside marketplaces of higher education.
Other reorganizations, however, follow the money. In cases where a particular subunit of a campus becomes remarkably successful at attracting external funding, a frequent result is a reorganization that gives the highly successful unit separate bureaucratic identity. Sometimes this occurs through the invention of institutes and centers, which are holding places for academic entrepreneurial success. In other cases, subunits of traditional departments or programs become independent departments, such as polymer sciences or legal studies. A music department can acquire external resources, hire nationally preeminent faculty, and emerge as a freestanding music school. A journalism department can expand its scale through grants, external programs, and fund raising and break free from a college of arts and sciences to become its own school.
For those conversant in the internal political dynamics of universities, the organizational chart of departments, schools, and colleges, and the list of centers and institutes, serve as a guide to the political history of the campus’s intellectual enterprise. By reviewing this chart, a newcomer acquires a sense of the relative political power and intellectual and financial muscle of the various campus units.
University systems also have their own particular and peculiar organizational structures that they revise and reorder frequently, also in response to political and fiscal pressures of various kinds, but that is a topic for another day.
The dreaded question: “So, what are you teaching this semester?” When I reply that I teach a business ethics course, more often than not my questioner laughs and asks whether that isn’t an oxymoron. And then laughs some more.
So it is hardly surprising that the recent cheating scandal at Duke University’s business school has fueled cynicism about the teaching of business ethics. Business schools across the country responded to corporate wrongdoing over the last decade by emphasizing ethics within their curriculums. In the daytime M.B.A. at Duke, students are required to take “Leadership, Ethics and Organizations” as part of an initial three-week summer term. Yet close to 10 percent of first-year students in Duke’s M.B.A. program were suspected of cheating on a take-home examination. The collective laughter would have been greater only if the accused students were in one of Duke’s ethics courses.
Still we should be careful not to infer too much from the Duke cheating scandal. A successful ethics component within a business program does not guarantee that its participants will never behave immorally. Not even churches or prisons boast that kind of effectiveness. So why should we expect it of an ethics class? What we expect is that when students complete the ethics component, they will approach moral problems with greater thoughtfulness and intellectual sophistication, as well as be more likely to resolve these problems in the right way. The goal is improvement, not perfection.
The behavior of the Duke M.B.A. students nevertheless gives us reason to pause. How much thoughtfulness and intellectual sophistication are necessary to know that cheating is wrong? Surely these young professionals did not need an ethics class to garner this important piece of moral knowledge. But if the students were aware of the wrongness of cheating all along, what kind of knowledge were they missing? What, exactly, could they have been taught in business ethics?
There is something more for business students to learn in ethics classes, and throughout their business programs. Ethics is not just about the what of morality; it is also about the whom of morality.
In ethics, the general requirements -- the what of morality -- are often quite straightforward. Indeed we would be hard pressed to find anyone in our society, let alone a university-level student, who was unaware of the general prohibition on cheating. However, the application of these requirements to individuals -- the whom of morality -- can be significantly murkier. I dare say it would not be difficult at all to find students who genuinely believe that their circumstances justify them in violating the prohibition on cheating.
Doing the right thing in the Duke case therefore required two things. First, the M.B.A. students needed to know that cheating is generally morally wrong. Second, they needed to know that it was wrong for them to cheat in their particular circumstances.
Why do people sometimes believe that moral requirements do not apply to them in the situations they face? The most compelling answer appeals to consequences. People predict that breaking the rules will have high payoffs. And where are the opposing costs? After all, rule-breaking really doesn’t seem to hurt anyone else, especially in environments in which others similarly break the rules. Of course the rules of morality generally ought to be followed. But only as long as the costs aren’t too high.
The consequentialist logic of business education may encourage this kind of thinking. There is no mistaking the fact that profit maximization is the chief value within many business curriculums. As a result, brief surveys of business law, discussions of company codes of conduct, or even introductions to ethical theory -- the what of morality -- are very likely to buckle under the comparative weight given to considerations of profit, goal achievement, cost-benefit analysis, and shareholder satisfaction.
Does this mean that business ethics really is an oxymoron? Not if business schools are willing to take the whom of morality seriously and educate students throughout the curriculum about the application of ethical requirements to all business actors. Among other things, this kind of education would draw on traditional academic disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, and politics to help students understand their place in the world and the role of business in society.
Ultimately, business ethics requires that we rethink the business curriculum. Business is not a closed system with its own set of values, motivations, and rules. The curriculum should reflect this fact. First, students must be able to think deeply and critically about conflicts between wealth and other values. Second, students should know more about ordinary human psychology, especially the tendency to overestimate our own importance and the importance our goals. Third, students need a greater awareness of the interdependence of business and the rest of civil society. Unfortunately, students cannot get this kind of education from a curriculum that focuses only on the business “fundamentals.”
So it is not enough for business students to hear yet again that certain behaviors are generally prohibited by morality. They must also come to see that these prohibitions apply to them even when morality conflicts with self-interest, the bottom line, and the interests of investors.
When business schools start taking ethics seriously, maybe people will stop laughing.
Terry L. Price
Terry L. Price is visiting associate professor of philosophy and a fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is associate professor at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies and author of Understanding Ethical Failures of Leadership (Cambridge University Press).
I’ve spent most of my career other than where I should be. I’m a business professor teaching at a liberal arts college. When I walk outside my office door, I’m more likely to bump into a colleague discussing Buddhism or chaos theory than one who’s talking about the latest Academy of Management conference.
But having an unconventional career can engender an uncommon freedom -- the chance to think about things most others regard as settled. Bringing business education and the liberal arts into close proximity, as happens at many small liberal arts colleges today, can unsettle the assumptions of each. But if done well -- and it takes a serious commitment to do it well -- there are tremendous benefits, certainly to business education and, surprisingly to many, also to the liberal arts.
The key to a business program flourishing at a liberal arts college is threefold: blending, bridging, and building. Blending entails teaching traditional business subjects from a liberal arts perspective. Bridging involves connecting the content of business classes to other disciplines. Building entails using the innovative study of business to develop and enrich the broader liberal arts curriculum itself. This occurs when the distinctive nature of business programs prompts larger questions about the nature of liberal education. (I have adopted the terms “blending” and “bridging” here from my fellow scholars, E. Byron Chew and Cecilia McInnis-Bowers.)
Teaching traditional business subjects from a liberal arts perspective involves recognizing the hidden biases that can inhere in the instruction of core business functions, from marketing to accounting to management, when such subjects are taught in a purely technical manner. Such biases can take many forms. They can involve an uncritical acceptance of a particular goal, such as occurs when finance theory stipulates the maximization of shareholder wealth as the sole end of companies, notwithstanding several real-world examples to the contrary.
Biases can also happen when business courses explore central domains of commerce from a single vantage point rather than from multiple perspectives. Conventional business majors, for instance, are much more likely to include courses in marketing than in consumer protection, even though the introduction of goods and services into society can hardly be fully understood if viewed only from the perspective of producers. Further, business courses can subtly convey biases by failing to contextualize adequately for students their basic inquiries. Traditional courses in organizational behavior, for example, draw heavily from psychology, yet often leave the assumptions of psychological theory unexplored. The danger here is that students uncritically adopt understandings of the human psyche while believing they are merely learning the practical organizational dynamics of business firms.
Teaching business subjects from a liberal arts perspective thus requires professors to be cognizant of such traditional biases and to teach in ways that expose them as part of a larger dialogue. This means approaching business topics from a critical vantage point, engaging multiple perspectives, and richly contextualizing basic inquiries. This is what we are attempting in the introductory course to the major at my home institution, Franklin & Marshall College. Entitled “Organizing in the 21st Century: Theories of Organization,” the course focuses on traditional topics of strategic management, but does so critically, exploring alternative theories of work and organization. It engages the perspectives of the multiple stakeholders in our commercial world, from employees to managers to consumers to members of the larger community. It highlights the way many disciplines -- psychology, sociology, and anthropology, to cite only a few – provide frameworks that can illuminate our commercial lives.
There are a number of opportunities for connecting the content of business classes to classes offered in more traditional liberal arts disciplines. Such opportunities need not involve creating new courses. The necessary courses are frequently already established and successful. Some students are even making the connections on their own, as when a biology student with an interest in working for a pharmaceutical company seeks out some relevant business courses. But we owe it to students not to leave them without support in discovering and pursuing these rich connections.
As with the biology student, these connections may be ones that help a student develop his larger career aspirations. Even in the most traditional business programs, there is a need to make practical connections with courses in such areas as legal studies, environmental studies, and international studies. Such areas of study are intrinsically valuable to a straightforward business career, as business operates in an increasingly litigious society, becomes more environmentally conscious, and further internationalizes its operations.
But at least of equal value are the connective opportunities that can satisfy a student’s deeper intellectual curiosities that have arisen in the study of business – an interest in psychology prompted by the study of management, an interest in economic theory stimulated in a finance class, an interest in ethics engendered by seeing the conflicts of interests accountants face. The goal here should be to highlight and promote for students structured learning paths that encourage these sorts of avenues of inquiry. This can occur, informally, through simply enriching our advising of business students or, more formally, through the creation of curricular structures such as innovative minors.
Using the innovative study of business to develop and enrich the broader liberal arts curriculum is potentially the most far-reaching contribution a business program can make to a liberal arts college. For it involves raising larger questions about the nature of liberal education.
First, teaching business innovatively unsettles the way we have often thought of liberal education as arising only from the study of certain prescribed disciplines. Discipline-based notions of liberal education are prevalent today, even though the history of liberal education readily reveals its changing disciplinary nature. The natural sciences, for example, were not always an accepted part of the canon. Teaching business innovatively thus brings to the fore a basic, reoccurring issue for liberal education: Is the core of liberal arts instruction based on what we teach or how we teach?
Second, teaching business innovatively highlights the way in which we conventionally think about the distinction between basic and applied knowledge. We often conceive of applied knowledge in purely vocational terms, reserving for liberal study the pursuit of basic knowledge unfettered by constraining purposes. The innovative study of business unsettles this conventional dichotomy. For at the core of business study is the interplay between basic and applied knowledge. Thus, teaching business innovatively prompts a provocative question for liberal education: Does the application of knowledge diminish or deepen liberal education?
Third, teaching business innovatively spotlights the role of cross-disciplinary inquiry in liberal education. Those outside of business often forget business study involves the integration of a number of distinct academic disciplines. Accounting, marketing, finance, and management have their own distinctive set of knowledge bases, models, and assumptions – at least some of which are in tension with one another. One is likely to get a very different sense, for instance, of human motivation in a finance class than in a class on organizational behavior. With its successful integration of multiple academic disciplines, the study of business is a highly developed form of area studies. It thus poses in an especially cogent way the larger issue area studies raise for liberal education. Does the core of liberal education reside within disciplines or among them?
Liberal arts colleges that welcome the innovative teaching of business thus stand a better chance of addressing successfully such larger questions of liberal education. Of course, welcoming the study of our commercial lives into the world of liberal education is hardly the prevailing norm. It is rather, as this business professor read as an English major many years ago, taking the road “less traveled by.” But in my unconventional career, I can see how, it “has made all the difference.”
Jeffrey Nesteruk is chair of the Department of Business, Organizations, and Society at Franklin & Marshall College.