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Universities will develop better business professionals if they do a better job of integrating components of a liberal arts education into business school curriculums, argues a new report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

June 2, 2011

Universities will develop better business professionals if they do a better job of integrating components of a liberal arts education into business school curriculums, argues a new report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The report, Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession, argues that business schools are too distinct from the rest of the undergraduate education, and students are either not learning how to think critically about issues or not given the chance to connect their liberal arts studies to their business education. Either way, the authors argue, students are not prepared as well as they could be for engaging in the business world.

"Regrettably, many undergraduate business programs do not provide strong liberal learning integrated with preparation for careers in business," the report states. "This means that their students miss the chance to develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions they need to be effective in business as well as in life. Their education is too narrow to support the creativity and flexibility they will need to be innovative business leaders."

The report comes at an interesting time for undergraduate business education -- now the most popular set of majors, with 21 percent of all undergraduates -- and other professional majors like education, social work, and communications. At the same time that they have grown in enrollment, they have come under increased scrutiny for a perceived lack of rigor and failure to spur intellectual development.

The report's authors argue that a more concerted focus on teaching students a set of modes of thinking commonly associated with a liberal arts education – analytical thinking, exploration of issues from different perspectives, reflective exploration of meaning, and practical reasoning -- can greatly improve business education. Rather than coming solely from literature or math classes in other departments, these modes of thinking should be stressed more in business courses, and students should be asked to think more critically about the field.

"Undergraduate business seems to be widely understood as a kind of simplified M.B.A. program," the report states. "A more distinctive identity for undergraduate business programs would acknowledge that this is their students’ college education as well as professional preparation. This means, in the American tradition of liberal education, that students need to be prepared for their futures as citizens and persons as well as entrants into the workforce."

The report's authors, Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, William M. Sullivan, and Jonathan R. Dolle, spent three years studying the literature surrounding business schools, as well as making visits and conducting interviews at 10 business schools with different approaches to liberal arts integration. They worked on several previous reports that stress the civic and moral benefits of liberal arts teaching, and much of that ethos carries over into this report.

Their argument is mostly philosophical -- that students would benefit in their future business careers from being able to think analytically about a subject, see it from multiple perspectives, and reflect on its meaning. But there is some empirical research that backs up their case.

In Academically Adrift, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, found that students who took more courses in traditional liberal arts and sciences disciplines scored better than students in professional majors such as business on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test designed to measure critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and other "higher level" skills.

"If you introduce greater academic rigor, including more exposure to traditional arts and sciences disciplines, one would expect that students would perform better," Arum said. He added that while he likes the new report and is sympathetic to its goal, he thinks it only touches on one aspect of what's wrong with business schools and avoids issues like the fact that business programs tend not to require as much reading and writing and that students are spending more time on non-academic pursuits like internships than in the past.

Few people argue against the value of the liberal arts as a component of business education. Groups such as the American Association of Colleges & Universities often produce reports arguing for more liberal arts education in college curriculums, frequently citing executives who say that business school graduates are ill-prepared in such “soft skills” as communication and critical thinking that are required for advancement in the workplace.

But the Carnegie report highlights part of the debate about what the focus of undergraduate professional education should be. On one hand, students with more specific skills, such as knowledge of Microsoft PowerPoint, statistical analysis software, or lab technology, are more likely to get in the door. On the other, employers repeatedly say that students with a well-rounded education are more likely to advance in the workplace. But striking a balance between those competing ideals is tough when students only have a few years in college, and critics say that students tend to focus on short-term credentials rather than their long-term interests.

"I don't think we've done a good job explaining to undergraduate students why these broader sets of competencies are in their best interest," Arum said. "Students see the immediate credential and what they can exchange it for in the labor market."

The report provides several examples of integrating diverse forms of learning into a business curriculum. At New York University, all business school students go through a four-course sequence that touches on the social, philosophical, ethical, legal, and professional aspects and responsibilities of the business world. At Santa Clara University, students supplement their business education with courses from diverse departments all centered on a particular theme, such as "Sustainability" or "Leading People, Organizations, and Social Change."

What the authors don’t want to see is a "barbell approach," where students study liberal arts fields and business fields but rarely make connections between the two. Ehrlich said this is what happens at many universities, with faculty members operating in different spheres and rarely collaborating, so that it is left up to students to make the connections without guidance.

"Business requires more than a narrow business mind," he said. "These students should understand it as a human activity in the larger social and historical context."

The street should go both ways, too. Working with professional schools can help researchers in the liberal arts and sciences use their work to address actual issues. "Liberal arts and sciences have just as much to learn from business school faculty," Ehrlich said. "Sometimes they forget that they should be grounded in real-world problems."


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