Business Education and the Liberal Arts

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Just this month in the courier-journal, Daniel Sullivan, President Emeritus of St. Lawrence University, summarized some recent thinking and research on business education and what is most needed. He noted that the skills business people need are gained in the traditional liberal arts, and not in specialized business programs. These kinds of skills are, as he noted, creativity, ability to communicate, literacy and numeracy (ability to understand and manipulate numerical data), teamwork, ability to integrate information, and to work in difference cultural contexts, among others. Specialized business training (or in any field for that matter) produces narrowness of approach and thinking, but doesn’t prepare a person for the broad range of tasks, situations and environments that business people face every day.

He further noted research that indicates that business students, in technical business programs, are some of the least engaged students. They spend less time in preparation for class, for example. In addition he noted that students taking the GMAT for entrance into graduate business programs who have completed business majors do less well on the test than students who have completed other majors.

This is a pretty comprehensive indictment. Business owners and those who hire want broadly educated students and our business program produce narrowly trained students who do worse on entrance exams than those trained in other (more broadly educating) majors. We could add that, unfortunately, business accrediting associations focus on technical education, large requirements in technical courses.

Sullivan then adds that Business is one of the majors with the highest demand—about 20% of students study business. And he concludes that “there are some institutions where undergraduate business education is thoughtfully and tightly married to the liberal arts to the benefit of each, where students explicitly preparing for a career in business also receive a demanding liberal education” and then he adds “but these situations are all too rare.”

I can only say Amen and Amen. We are one of those schools. We link business to the liberal arts, and it is also to the benefit of the business students and all other students who work with them in their courses. Schools that teach in the liberal arts tradition as Fresno Pacific does (even though we are now a comprehensive university) will often give the first Amen, but I want to emphasize the second.

My experience teaching ethics for our business program confirms that practical bent of most business students. They want to know what the practical benefit is of and idea or theory, of a particular ethical teaching or program. I found my business students to offer unique insights and to require that I ground my thinking concretely in practical life. It is often a real joy to teach them. They kept me sharp and thinking in practical and useful ways.

I might add that in studies done by our business faculty of the desires of business owners and those who hire our students, the most highly sought quality was not even the qualities that the liberal arts train for mentioned above. Instead it was, and still is, integrity and ethics. A business can teach technical skills. It might also be able to enhance our abilities in communication or encourage team work or creativity. But it is harder to teach integrity, good values, morals, ethics, or virtues, or whatever we want to call that quality of character. A good education must do this as well. If it doesn’t how can it truly be called “good.” A school committed to a faith tradition has an advantage over others. It is committed to what it understands to be good. Up front we assert that commitment and students expect to explore ethical ideals as part of their education.

Sullivan concludes that business leaders should “speak clearly” about their needs and what students should be studying. I want to second his call, but also to note also that this kind of education can still be found, it is here, and in other schools like Fresno Pacific. But we need to go one step further. Businesses are hungry for employees they can trust, and our society needs business with integrity. Skills are relatively easy to acquire. Breadth of understanding and depth of character take a different kind of education which can still be found if we want it.

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