Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Undergraduate Business Education

FLG has long been against undergraduate business education. Doing an MBA only reinforces that stance. Business education isn't conducive to disproving The Big Assumption Thus, it's not conducive to providing a liberal education, not merely as historically understood, but insofar as the term liberal arts means what a free citizen ought to know and understand. Consequently, FLG was not in the least bit surprised by this article about the sad state of undergraduate business education.

There are several underlying reasons why FLG thinks business education isn't good for educating citizens, but he'll address them later.

Another explanation [for the poor performance of business students] is the heavy prevalence of group assignments in business courses: the more time students spent studying in groups, the weaker their gains in the kinds of skills the C.L.A. measures.

FLG has mentioned before on his blog that he hates group work. (He views breaking up into groups during class sessions as possible the biggest waste of time imaginable, but that's a separate issue.) He's heard the reasons for group work.

"You'll be in groups in the work world." Yep. Ya will. But there are two important differences between school and work groups. First, when somebody is working on a project in the work world they have a reasonable expectation that they'll have to work with that person in the future and everybody has longer-term interests involved. They'll probably need each other at some point. So, it isn't a good strategy to slack off. In school, you're thrown together for a semester or a quarter or even for one project. After that, it's on to the next group. No continuing interest not to slack off. Second, if a group member in the work world is screwing up or slacking off, it's possible to escalate it to their boss. In school, you can bring it to the professor's attention, but they're often hesitant to get involved.

Then there's the "some people learn better in groups argument." Students will learn from each other, or so the theory goes. FLG has never bought into this theory. He's just never learned that much from his fellow students. Most of the time, if any of the students has some expertise, then it plays out like this:
the groups that functioned most smoothly were often the ones where the least learning occurred. That’s because students divided up the tasks in ways they felt comfortable with. The math whiz would do the statistical work, the English minor drafted the analysis.

Towards the end of the article, it starts to get into what FLG objects to in business education:
it is a “travesty” to offer vocational fields like finance or marketing to 18-year-olds. Instead, he supports a humanistic, multidisciplinary model of management education

Focusing on vocational fields is short-sighted. You can, as FLG is doing, always go back and do an MBA or even take some classes in a technical or vocational field later. You only get one chance to do an undergraduate education. FLG thinks that's why this holds:
On average nationally, business students enter the work force with higher starting salaries than humanities and social science majors. By mid-career, however, some of those liberal arts majors, including political science and philosophy majors, have closed the gap.

Generally speaking, a college educated person will have opportunities to pickup technical and business knowledge. Businesses send people to training for these things all the time. It is far less likely that a business is going to pay for a course in humanities. The philosophy major can reasonably go get an MBA to add specific business skills to their liberal arts education. A business major doesn't have the opportunity to rectify their lack of a liberal arts education, at least through formal schooling.

FLG's objection to undergraduate business education is roughly two-fold. First, it's not conducive to investigating normative issues. Sure, there's ethics components, but in general the assumption in American business schools is one of profit maximization. FLG doesn't have an issue with businesses maximizing profits. That's all well and good. He does have an issue with a citizenry, specifically the supposedly educated citizenry, having received an education that was almost entirely built upon that largely unexamined assumption.

But even if you assume that education is merely to prepare for work, skill-based education FLG believes is the preferred term of late, then what do employers want? Great question, which the article addresses:
And what about employers? What do they want?

According to national surveys, they want to hire 22-year-olds who can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data, and they’re perfectly happy to hire English or biology majors. Most Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges, in fact, don’t even offer undergraduate business majors.

Look, FLG isn't sure that an English major is at some huge advantage over a business major when finding a job right out of school. But, on average, FLG thinks the English major has better potential over the course of their career. For the first five maybe ten years of a person's career technical skill matters, but they matter less afterwards. Then it becomes more about, broadly speaking, dealing with people.

Let's take a hypothetical finance major. Maybe they work in a finance department or even for a big bank. At first, they're crunching numbers. But ten to fifteen years later they're not crunching numbers anymore. They're managing people and running a department or division. At that point, the hardcore finance skills aren't terribly important. They just need to know enough to find flaws in the numbers; to be able to call bullshit on what is given to them. Their job has shifted to become more about communication and understanding people with all the myriad motivations. That is where the humanities and liberal arts major flourishes.

Oh, sure, business majors take organizational behavior and management communication, but FLG's experience with these courses is that they try to codify, thorough social science-ish processes, what is inherently tacit. And, at least in FLG's experience, this tacit knowledge is best learned from a liberal arts education.

UPDATE: FLG did want to mention that the title of the article is The Default Major. This does highlight the self-selection issue. To a large extent, those students who view college on purely financial return grounds are going to major in business because it gives the most bang for the buck in terms of immediate returns. So, as you expand access to higher education, this situation is only going to get larger.

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