Sunday, January 10, 2010

Liberal Arts and Business

FLG has continually stressed that liberal arts is more important for America's civic and economic health than narrowly focusing on math and science. Well, it turns out that business schools may be thinking similarly.

students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions.

You mean that learning the time-value of money, double entry accounting, and how to price a currency swap are not all there is to business? Surely, you jest. Seriously though, this obviously makes sense, but it is much harder to teach and test. And that brings me to the core problem of this type of business school revamp -- that it is often done poorly.

Two years ago, for example, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford made a sweeping curriculum change that included more emphasis on multidisciplinary perspectives and understanding of cultural contexts. The first-quarter mandatory curriculum, for example, now includes a class called “The Global Context of Management and Strategic Leadership.” First-year students also must take a course called “Critical and Analytical Thinking.”

This is just the type of bullshit stuff that these changes produce -- bullshit. You can't make some mental plodder into a creative and innovative thinker by throwing a class together and making them take it. One course on "Global Context" is a huge circle jerk of uselessness. At least the courses that are similar that I've been in have, without exception, been useless time-wasters that try to give students tools, often called frameworks by the instructors, for understanding foreign cultures. When in reality this is really is how to put countries into oversimplified boxes that, while partially true, which may seem to work, but will only get the students in big trouble later on.

I spent four years studying international economics, culture, history, and relations, and I've only scratched the surface. And don't talk to me about understanding foreign cultures when you don't bother to require proficiency in a foreign language for graduation.

Educators, for reasons I cannot quite understand, resort to technical changes. Changes like "interdisciplinary studies," "critical thinking," etc. As if there is some additional ingredient or mixture of existing ingredients that can fix everything.

The purpose of education should be to relate to people. Liberal arts is primarily about studying how people think, feel, and interact, not narrowly scientifically as in psychology or sociology, but through the art, philosophy and literature that they produce. Likewise, the primary problem with focusing on math and science in engineering education is that it is often devoid of human context. It's about how things can be done or built and how to do them better, but not what should be done or why. To or for what human purpose? is the missing piece of the engineering education.

And finally, same for business. What all so-called stakeholders have in common is that they are people. Customers are people. Investors are people. Co-workers, etc are people. Perhaps the people in one country vary from the people in another country, but they are still people. Dividing them up into boxes defined by their primary material interest or country of origin can be helpful, but it also oversimplifies.

My point here isn't that managers need to treat every single customer as a unique and special individual because that's impossible. It's about not treating them as merely data points in a OLS regression and putting them into boxes based upon some cultural rubric created by some anthropologist. The entire social scientific, data driven, tool-based approach is folly. Managers need more intuition, not more empirical toolkits.


Withywindle said...

Consider that liberal arts classes may be worse taught, on average, than business or math/science classes.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think telling 30-year-old mid-career professionals that what will really help them in business is "learning to think," maybe by raising their awareness of the existence of foreign countries, will go over really well.

FLG said...


That's a damn good point, and I understand what you are saying. But don't people go to school to learn to think about things?

Aren't you at Harvard to learn to think about politics?

Likewise, shouldn't an MBA learn to think about business?

David said...

FLG, you might enjoy Michael Hammer's thoughts on this.

Miss Self-Important said...

They go to learn about things they presumably did not learn 10 years ago in freshman year of college. And if what they did learn then failed to sink in, it's hard to believe that the calcified mind of 10 years later is going to be more receptive to it. This "learning to think" rhetoric applied to mature adults (and presumably relatively successful ones in their field) is so patronizing and infantilizing. Moreover, it's not actually liberal arts that is or will be taught, nor should it be. Are they going to be reading Jane Austen or learning Latin? You agree that what the b-schools in the article have so far come up with in the way of "critical thinking" courses is mostly mealy-mouthed BS. But what can they come up with and still be b-schools? More attention to customer relations can stressed in business courses, but it is not itself a liberal art.

Professional degrees are not college redux or continuing ed for leisured retirees. They're narrow and technical, which I think is probably ok. My degree is narrow and technical too in a way--I am not "learning to think" except in the most diffuse and vague sense of the term. At some point, we have to assume that people have learned what they can learn re: "how to think" and are now adults, fully capable of actually thinking. That few of them will reach the pinnacle of sense and subtlety in their thinking is obvious, but endless "education" conducted by people no more knowledgeable about how to think than their students is probably not going to perfect man.

FLG said...


Understood and Agreed.

Although, instead of Latin, I do wish that b-schools, almost all of which claim to educate people for the "globally integrated world," would require foreign language proficiency. Most of the European ones do.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sure, foreign language competency makes sense in those cases. But even there, that skill would be pretty much for the purpose of technical application--that is, actually communicating with foreigners. It would not really be an exercise in something fundamental like learning a grammatical system. Which, again, seems ok to me.

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