From the Business School–A Confession

Last week, I met with someone who works in the School of Business at Portland State University. Our meeting was to talk about a program at the university to help working professionals develop as leaders and about how we might team up, the School of Business and the School of Extended Studies, to offer a stronger program than either of us might attempt alone.

During our conversation, he shared a secret with me:  He thinks undergraduates who have their hearts set on careers in business should major in the Liberal Arts.  Why?  Because it isn’t useful to teach “business” to an undergraduate population that lacks knowledge of the context business should operate in.  We’re teaching these undergrads the form (profit-making, marketing) and leaving out the content (why a business is in business, the science, invention, contribution).  Without an underpinning of general knowledge (culture, literature, history), how can business leaders align organizations with purpose, inspire a workforce, or contribute to a greater good?

“Besides,” he went on to say, “you can’t teach an 18-year-old Organizational Behavior. When a teenager thinks about ‘behavior,’ it’s probably all the ways they’ve been in trouble in their young lives.  They have no context whatsoever for organizational behavior.” 

I’ve been happily surprised in recent weeks to discover how many people agree that an education in history, culture, science, language—anything other than the specific ways and wiles of commerce—is necessary for business people and, so far, mostly overlooked.  I admit I wasn’t expecting to hear it from within the walls of the School of Business, and maybe I’m telling a tale out of school.  But what a nice thought it is for a moment—an army of literate, well-rounded, maybe even ethical business leaders whose launch point was a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, linguistics, geography, or English, who then went on to graduate school to study finance, marketing, project management and, of course, organizational behavior.

One other heartening discovery this week:  The Carnegie Foundation is operating a three year project to “ensure that undergraduate students who major in business and other professional fields also gain the benefits of a strong liberal arts education” (http://carnegiefoundation.org/programs/index.asp?key=1862, accessed 30 August 2009).  The driver of this project, as it’s described on their site, is the increasing number of business undergrads, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.  I guess the assumption is, if your parents had a broad education, perhaps you’ve had some, too.  If you parents haven’t, then you’ve probably missed out on that and, tracking directly into a business program, you’ll continue to miss out on it.  Without it, our future business leaders “will not gain the intellectual, moral, and civic learning they need to be responsible individuals and members of their communities.”

So that’s more good news, not just for business but for students of the liberal arts.  If you’re working your way through studies of language and literature, you already know how much richer you are for having done so.  What you may not have been aware of is that some people in key places have noticed the same thing, and can take it a step further than you can.  They see your education as valuable to business, and this can be just the groundwork you need to put your degree to work.

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