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Undergrad Programs

Business Schools Embrace the Liberal Arts

The Business and Society Program at NYU’s Stern School of Business offers a series of four required courses placing business in a larger societal context

Courtesy New York University

The Business and Society Program at NYU’s Stern School of Business offers a series of four required courses placing business in a larger societal context

Undergraduate business programs are, for the most part, no-nonsense degrees. You have your finance, your marketing, and your management—and the connection between what is taught in the classroom and the skills used on the job is pretty straightforward.

But a number of business schools are beginning to experiment with something that might have been considered sacrilege a few years ago: incorporating the liberal arts—literature, history, science, and philosophy—into the business curriculum.

The move marks a growing sense that something critical is missing from college business education, something that can’t be easily remedied by a new class or other quick fix. The goal: to create business programs that produce graduates with knowledge of the world that is both broad and deep, and with the complex reasoning, problem solving, and communication skills they’ll need to perform their best at work.

“Business education is known for the narrow technical skills, almost as if, if they have the right set of skills they’ll be able to get ahead,” says Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program. “But the people who get ahead have a broad range of skills and talents.”

The movement to incorporate the liberal arts into business education got a big push two years ago with the publication of Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession, by Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, William Sullivan, and Jonathan Dolle. (Colby and Ehrlich are Stanford University professors. Sullivan is a senior scholar at the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College. Dolle is a research associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.) The book reported on a Carnegie Foundation study that found most business programs rarely challenge students’ assumptions, ask them to think creatively, or understand the broader context of business.

Samuelson last month organized a meeting in Denver of more than 35 business schools—the second such meeting in two years—to discuss ways to make progress toward making liberal arts education central to the business school experience. But the fact is, in the last few years a number of schools have already made significant headway in that regard.

• At Bentley University, business students can double major in liberal studies focused on a theme such as ethics and social responsibility or earth, environment, and global sustainability. In their projects, students are expected to make meaningful connections between their business and liberal arts studies and develop skills in critical thinking and creative analysis. Bentley also has a course on the philosophy of work that incorporates readings from actual philosophers.

• The business administration department at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., brings a global perspective to the liberal arts. Students attending school trips to Vietnam, Amsterdam, Russia, and East Asia participate in courses on psychology, sociology, literature, and art history, among others.

• At Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, students in the Ethics of Entrepreneurship freshman seminar take on a semester-long project designed to help them flex their critical-thinking and writing muscles in a global and social framework. Students undertake a real-world social entrepreneurship project and at the end of class write a paper explaining what they hoped to accomplish, what happened, and what they learned. One group helped women in the West African nation of Gambia start a business harvesting and selling oil from a shrub tree.

Ehrlich says Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania has an economics course that broadens students’ perspectives by treating neoclassical economics as one approach among many, while the Business and Society Program at NYU’s Stern School of Business offers a series of four required courses placing business in a larger societal context.

“Students believe history started yesterday afternoon at 3 p.m. and can’t imagine life without computers or automobiles,” Ehrlich says. “But undergraduate business is supposed to give a much broader sense of the landscape of which business is a part. That’s why it’s so important that liberal learning and business be integrated.”

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.

Lavelle is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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