Practical Reasoning From an Impractical Perch

It takes a certain degree of hubris to assign oneself the responsibility of investigating and learning about something popular and effective –  and then making recommendations about how it should be rethought. Higher education, however, has no shortage of experts eager and willing to tell others what to do and how to do it. Knowledge, after all, is our currency. And while the endeavor may irritate, self-appointed experts often can make trenchant observations and suggest worthwhile innovations.

It is difficult to digest Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Professions without that sense of irritation and admiration. With little or no direct experience with business education, four Carnegie Foundation scholars wrote a helpful study. They get much some right and some wrong, but nevertheless make a compelling argument for business curricula and practice to draw more effectively from the liberal arts.

The authors approached the subject initially from a very broad level, wondering if there was a singular “profession” of business to unify and ground business education. Further, demanding that an education must prepare a student to reason critically, be able to adopt multiple perspectives, and to connect meaning with activities, the authors insist on every greater integration in education. Functions rely upon and interact with each other, the book posits, and therefore education must aspire to every greater degrees of reciprocal integration, virtuous cycles of integration, implementation, evaluation and re-integration. Vocational education does not do this, the authors claim, and therefore business education must distinguish itself through higher-level skills and degrees of integration, both within itself and with the liberal arts.

Scholarship is always produced within a context and Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education is no exception; it is a child of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The reverberations of that global meltdown spurred questions about the very skills and knowledge of our business leaders and, correspondingly, of the education they received. The authors surveyed institutions, schools, programs, faculty and curricula. They found many examples of thoughtful, integrated curricula bringing liberal learning to life within a business-education environment. They also believe, but do not effectively document, that much of what makes up a business education is vocational, isolated, and ill-suited to the concept of an educated adult.

The authors propose five recommendations that they believe would advance business education: make sure that a liberal arts education is a central part of a business education, incorporate liberal learning into the business curriculum; link arts and sciences and business curricula; business educators can contribute to arts and sciences curricula. These are common sense recommendations that would hold true for education in many areas. Integration, communication and sharing cannot help but elevate the bar.

But are the failures of business education any different from the failures of philosophy, or history, or psychology? One would be hard pressed to know. What seems to matter, though, is that since business is popular and has a significant impact in the world beyond academia, business education should be better and do more with future business leaders. I find it problematic, though, to lay the financial crisis at the feet of business education. Can we rightly state that we would have better leadership in Congress, Wall Street, and business if business leaders had a more integrated undergraduate business education? The people in those positions of power more often that not had the benefit of undergraduate and graduate education from elite institutions. The argument that a better business education can do all that more is ambitious at best.

Nevertheless, the authors’ recommendations are solid and well worth implementing in business programs.

Finally, when I finished the book I wondered about the inverse: what would a study by self-appointed business leaders of higher education look like? And I realized – we’re seeing it, every day, with criticisms about the lack of integration, effectiveness and relevance in the arts and sciences. It isn’t being published by the Carnegie Foundation; it is in The Wall Street Journal and the popular media. Hubris may be catching.

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