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Teaching Business at a Liberal Arts College

Teaching Business at a Liberal Arts College
June 24, 2008

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.)

Blending

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.

Bridging

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.

Building

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.”

Bio

Jeffrey Nesteruk is chair of the Department of Business, Organizations, and Society at Franklin & Marshall College.

 

 

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