Liberal Arts and Endless Possibilities

            Twenty per cent of all college students major in Business.  This not surprising tidbit is part of what Dr. William Sullivan had to tell us last week at the American Association of Colleges and Universities conference.  Dr. Sullivan, of the Business Entrepreneurship and Liberal Learning (BELL) project, said if you add Business majors to other “professional” majors (nursing, education, engineering), you’ll find that one in every two undergrads is majoring in a professional discipline (i.e., a discipline that prepares students for specific jobs).

            The BELL project, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, set out a few years ago to answer this question:  What liberal arts education do students in professional disciplines receive?  Here’s some of what they found:

  • Students today are much more focused on getting an education as job preparation than were previous generations of students.


  • Students consider courses either “serious” (business, professional) and “not serious” (liberal arts).  They associate the value of a course with the kind of job the course is preparing them for. 


  • There’s a lack of understanding of, and interest in, arts and sciences.  This lack of interest is not only among students but is, at least to some extent, shared by professional school faculty and advisors.  


  • Business school curricula are packed with requirements.  There’s not a lot of room for “optional” courses. 


  • It’s rare that the liberal arts are integrated with professional education.  A good deal of the integration of the two is left to the students. 


  • Students are taught to think about business primarily in terms of economics and finance, using a model of “solutions to problems,” which is increasingly focused on economic principles and practices (instead of, say, purpose or contribution to the common good). 


            Dr. Sullivan’s colleague, Dr. Anne Colby, went on to say that liberal education, in contrast to business education, isn’t presented with much zing (my word, not hers).  Many business programs have a kick-off series or cohort, bringing students into the discipline with exciting projects.  They dive right into teamwork, they compete and they get a chance to sample their futures right away.  Liberal arts?  Not so much.

            Perhaps you’re wondering what zingy orientation would look like for something as broad, diverse and theoretical as a liberal education.  That’s probably why we are where we are—with business schools cheerleading undergrads through the early stages of their education while liberal educators stand by casting serene and knowing glances at the handful of students they have left.

            But perhaps what seems like the challenge here is actually the opportunity.  In other words, maybe it’s the breadth and scope of the liberal education that actually offers an opportunity to devise a number of possible, credible, encouraging, even exciting, visions of a student’s future.  For example:

            How about a Liberal Arts career week?  And not just the same old recycled stuff (“You can have a career in teaching” “You can have a career in publishing”) but presentations from businesses about interesting entry-level jobs liberal arts majors might pursue—marketing assistant, business analyst, data administration, customer service, administrative assistant.  (NYU’s annual “Liberal Arts Boot Camp” is one such offering.)

            How about crafting up a partnership with, say, continuing education to offer a “Business Certificate for Liberal Arts Students,” arming them with business basics to bridge the gap between literacy, analytical skills, critical thinking and how they’re applied in a commercial setting?

            How about designing some minors just for Liberal Arts students (Healthcare Administration minor for Liberal Arts majors, Business Administration minor for Liberal Arts majors) that not only offer the basics of healthcare and business but show how to employ good communication and analysis in those professional environments?

            How about “Leadership for English Majors” using, say, Joseph Badaracco’s book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature as the textbook, thereby linking a humanities education to business leadership?

            Really, is there a limit to the professional possibilities liberal arts majors should consider?  No, and that’s exactly why it should be easy to help educated young people find commercial success—thanks to their education, not in spite of it.

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