IN RECENT DECADES, INCREASING numbers of students have chosen to major in professional fields rather than in the "pure" arts and sciences. Business management has become the largest major, and it persists as a field of enormous undergraduate interest. Some colleges and universities have tried to bridge the gap between the general education goals in the liberal arts that most faculty members regard as essential and the understandable aspirations of students to learn something that will have immediate utility in obtaining a job and succeeding in it. The Council of Independent Colleges, through two symposia in 2003 and 2007, has tried to describe the commonalities of these disparate fields of study, while the Associated New American Colleges has tried to bolster some of those institutions that-rather than apologizing for including professional study along with the liberal arts-have articulated an educational philosophy that calls for selected strengths in both arenas. And the James S. Kemper Foundation has for years been pressing liberal arts colleges to strengthen the ways liberal arts majors prepare young people for business careers.
A favorite strategy of many liberal arts colleges has been to "blend" the liberal arts into business programs. Birmingham-Southern College (Ala.) connects the "great books" with the business curriculum, an approach that is intended to reduce the possibility of mental divides between a student's professional field and his or her general education. Dominican University (Ill.) requires all students, including business majors, to complete a liberal arts and sciences seminar in which questions about the relationship of work to other aspects of life are discussed. Franklin Pierce University (N.H.) relies on a required course on "business in society" to broaden students' perspectives whether or not they major in business, while at Mars Hill College (N.C.) it is the related concepts of "character" and "civic life" that link the study of liberal arts with the study of professional fields.
Hanover College replaced its business major with a Center for Business Preparation.
Another common approach is to design the courses that business majors take to maximize their emphasis on "higher order cognitive skills." Ursinus College (Pa.) says its Economics and Business program hits specific goals for writing, argumentation, synthesis, and critical analysis. Southwestern University (Texas) also highlights the capabilities that one learns through the study of the liberal arts in its introductory economics and business courses.
A few institutions are pursuing even bolder alternatives. At Hanover College (Ind.), the business major was abolished a few years ago, and students now concentrate in traditional fields of the liberal arts while also taking courses through the Center for Business Preparation, which has become the largest academic program on campus. The Center's programs emphasize a variety of competencies that will be important in business careers, including undergraduate work on "real world" problems, and workshops addressing career skills such as interviewing, networking, and professional etiquette. At Ripon College (Wis.) the business major persists, but the institution prescribes a course of study that begins with economics and then branches into other fields of the traditional liberal arts rather than business subjects. By drawing on a range of departments, Ripon is able also to offer distinctive minor fields in such areas as arts management and entrepreneurship. In addition, students are able to gain credit, with the business major, for service-learning experiences as well as internships.
Another strategy that has served many institutions well is to use a thematic focus to integrate the liberal arts and business. Substantial literary and philosophical texts can be mined for their lessons for business and leadership. Homer's Odyssey is used this way at University of St. Thomas (Texas), while at Hendrix College (Ark.) the theme of "entrepreneurship" runs through many majors as students learn to appreciate their own potential for creativity and innovation. Thanks in large part to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's encouragement, many colleges, including Manchester College (Ind.), have focused on "entrepreneurship" as the unifying theme for programs in business, the social sciences, and other fields. For the University of Richmond (Va.), the long-established Jepson School of Leadership Studies is proposing to focus on innovation and entrepreneurship in a new center.
No one argued at either of the two CIC symposia-or at a Southwestern university symposium on the same topic in 2006-that preparation for business can be done without reference to the "real world" of business practice. For that reason, many institutions emphasize the experiential dimensions of preparing would be business leaders. At the University of Puget Sound (Wash.), for example, enhanced connections between the campus and business leaders have given students practical experience. At Sweet Briar College (Va.), a similar emphasis on experience in the business world through internships is joined with a full-fledged business major created in 2003 that has already become the college's largest major. Sweet Briar, like many institutions, grounds these activities in economics and the study of ethics.
But we should not become misty-eyed about the potential of these efforts to integrate the liberal arts and business curricula. In an era when knowledge of advanced technology is key to economic development, we must still reckon with the cold fact that many of the most successful technological innovators studied neither the liberal arts nor business. Bill Gates, a Harvard dropout who tinkered with computers rather than attend class, is only the most famous example. A large group of successful business leaders majored in engineering. Indeed, among admissions officers at engineering schools there is constant speculation that the best predictor of the creativity and innovation of an engineer is not high school grades, but evidence that the high school student tinkers in the garage after school in the hope of inventing new products or processes.
An equally inconvenient truth about the value of the liberal arts is the fact that subjects of study go in and out of fashion. The trivium of liberal arts of the ancient Greeks-which were justified by their practicality-were not viewed as adequate when, a millennium later, an additional four fields were added. And the seven are not all taught in today's college curriculum, and even newer fields have made inroads. In the late 19th century, the battles at American colleges and universities over the inclusion of the physical sciences- viewed at first as inappropriately vocational and unworthy of a place in the undergraduate program-seem quaint by today's standards, when physics, chemistry, and biology are unquestionably core disciplines of the arts and sciences program. Because definitions of the "liberal arts" vary across time and even across contemporaneous institutions, understanding their connection to careers in business becomes more difficult.
Nor can the thematic approach be counted upon always to produce good results. An interdisciplinary major in "humanities and business," for example, would surely include a course on "literature and business." If its syllabus consisted entirely of novels in which businessmen are main characters, the course would hardly do justice to the fields of either literature or business. Yet this thematic caricature shows up on too many campuses.
Homer'sOdyssey is mined for its lessons for business and leadership.
We need a lot more empirical research on the connections between the liberal arts and business.
The 1980s study by Robert Beck of career mobility at AT&T is still cited to show that those who studied the liberal arts did better in their careers at the company than others. But, in fact, the study suggests that almost all of AT&T's managerial employees had majored in a technical or scientific field. Rather, it's the individuals who majored in these fields at broader-based colleges and universities instead of at technical institutes who went on to do well in their careers at AT&T.
Whenever someone tries to pinpoint the essential skills, perspectives, and knowledge that study of the liberal arts furnishes to those who subsequently enjoy successful business careers, the efforts are often too broadly conceived to account for differences among the disciplines of the arts and sciences, as well as differences in what is termed "business."
Even understood correctly, the predictive value of the Beck study now, a generation later, has probably diminished with the passage of time. We need to know about today's career patterns in large telecommunications companies. Similar studies are needed for other industries because the pattern of career mobility in telecommunications is probably different from the patterns in such diverse enterprises as automobile manufacturing, banking, or software development. If and when these studies are completed, they will almost certainly validate the premise that preparation for and success in business careers are enhanced by study of the liberal arts, but there can be no comfortable conclusions until the research is done.
Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.