Business-Literate Liberal Arts Students? Why Not?

It’s finals week, and I’m reflecting on the quarter that’s just ending.  I taught for Portland State’s School of Business this quarter, two non-credit  workshops for seniors aiming for an “honors” distinction.  Eligibility for the “honors” track is based on the students’ grades and accomplishments as well as on completing some additional education (non-credit courses) to expand their experience beyond the core and elective classes.  The workshop I taught, “Executive Communication,” is an opportunity to explore more advanced forms of business presentations and writing, to deal with things like impromptu speaking, handling controversy, and writing not only efficiently but with vigor (not a business norm, I realize, but certainly one reason business writing is deadly).

We spent 10 weeks together, and I was happily surprised by the students’ level of engagement.  I admit I was suspicious at the outset about how this would go—10 weeks of classes layered on top of their already-busy schedules, classes they take for no credit, on a subject they may or may not see as germane to their specific career objectives.  But they were energetic, attentive, open, and willing. 

Asked at the end of class what they thought of it, one student said he appreciated the chance to think about writing in a practical way, that he hadn’t had feedback about his writing, per se, in years.  Another said he was happy to learn, finally, what “diction” meant.  “I remember in my freshman year when we were told ‘good diction was expected,’ and I never really knew what that meant.  Now I know, and I know what it means in business writing.”  Another student said she “really liked” the impromptu speaking opportunities and the feedback.  “Well, I didn’t really like it,” she confessed, “but it was good for me!”

Of course I’m delighted they got something out of it.  But I’m more struck by the inter-disciplinary nature of the topic, the recognition that writing and speaking is important to business. 

It’s an excellent idea:  Business students learning something about writing and speaking.

Here’s another good idea:  Liberal arts students learning something about business. 

Why not?

We expect business students to be literate.  Why shouldn’t we expect liberal arts students to be business-literate?

We want business students to be literate because we know it improves their chances for success in the future, to apply what they’ve learned during their years of business education.  It makes them better deciders, implementers, thinkers, leaders.  It helps them navigate complexity, sort through confusion, and handle difficult situations.

Yet we don’t seem to want liberal arts students to be business-literate.  Even though it would improve their chances for success in the future, to apply what they’ve learned during their years of liberal arts education.  Even though they’d be better prepared to make decisions and to navigate the complexity of the business infrastructure we live within.  Even though they’d be better able to get a job.

Admittedly, my view of this issue isn’t comprehensive.  But at a glance, here’s what I see:

Business educators are helping their students improve their chances.  They do so by making sure their students become better communicators. 

Liberal arts educators aren’t helping their students better their chances.  But they could—by making sure their students are better equipped to apply what they’ve learned in school to the realities of the world they’re about to enter.

4 thoughts on “Business-Literate Liberal Arts Students? Why Not?

  1. My educational background is in science and engineering, and I don’t understand much about the intent of liberal arts education other than to develop general knowledge and rational thought processes. In my opinion, that is the value of ALL undergraduate education, especially for the bulk of undergrad students who are fresh out of high school.

    If more students had a solid foundation to build on rather than trying to jump into a specialty where lifelong learning/experience is orders of magnitude more relevant than what they learned in school, we’d have a more intelligent/rational base of talent shaping business and society.

    What baffles me is the apparent disconnect between liberal arts education as preparation for business. It sounds like liberal arts educators aren’t concerned about preparing students for business, when the vast majority of all students enter careers which involve jobs and “business.” I can’t think of a career/job where someone gets paid that does not involve “business” at some level.

    Susan, I completely agree with what you have written here and I think your closing statement summarizes the problem beautifully. The realities of the world that graduating students are about to enter most certainly involve business skills.

  2. Love this post. I had never thought of it that way – liberal arts students should be business-literate just as we expect business students to write and communicate well. Perfect.

  3. Thank you, Susan, for your ingenious argument proposing the literacy and business-literacy parallel. As a career counselor for Liberal Art studnents,I am constantly looking for ways to penetrate the world views of their professors, who often seem (at best)oblivious to or (at worst) uninterested in the professional chances of their graduating majors who are not going on to graduate school. I will endeavor to use your arguments in my communication with the faculty!

  4. I believe your article is spot on! One of my colleagues major in a liberal arts discipline and completed a minor in business. She has held several managerial positions utilizing her creative thinking and strong writing skills to weave herself in and out of complex situations. I could certainly see “leadership” courses (versus business and management courses) being a strong asset to a liberal arts degree. Don’t tell her I said this, but I am so jealous of her skills.

    Overall, I would say that students definitely need to focus on their career path as they pursue undergraduate studies in an effort to discover the skills necessary for the workforce; and seek training through internships. Other practical areas students may want to consider are communication, technology, and education – a discipline that will give them a balance while maintaining their strong liberal arts focus.

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