What should be the role of the liberal arts in business education? As we witness huge increases in the cost of formal education, every student has a right to ask what the best use of their time and investment in higher education should be. As educators, we owe it to them to justify the mix of professional training and personal enrichment we offer them.
As management faculty, the question we ask is: have we done our job if we send business graduates out into the work world and society with huge gaps in their knowledge of traditional liberal arts? Shouldn’t every business student graduate with a grounding in communication, psychology, science, literature and the habits of curiosity and engagement that are so characteristic of the arts and sciences?
I believe they should. The essence of higher education is to create a complete person whose intellect and emotions are capable of processing and integrating technical and cultural inputs and looking at issues in a creative mode from multiple perspectives. This work is not complete if liberal arts is either missing or so disconnected from business education that they remain un-integrated in separate silos within the graduate.
Business is the application of sophisticated models, tools, techniques and ways of thinking to phenomena and people in the world. However, viewing business as a pure market transaction may not be sufficient for success. Being effective as a business person requires a deep understanding of what drives people and society. You need creativity, passion, innovation and the joy of working with others in pursuit of a goal.
Focusing on technical business issues without grappling with the role of the business in society is operating without context. We live in a larger system. If we fail to have the resident knowledge to enable us to tune into all aspects of this system, our solutions will be shallow, one-dimensional and short-sighted. Liberal education offers the context for deep, multidimensional solutions to business and societal needs. In addition, this multidimensional outlook makes the individual more interesting, which supports their ability to attract and lead others in collective endeavors.
An integrated liberal arts and business education produces thoughtful and well-informed civic leaders. It cultivates individual freedom through reflection and self-awareness. It leads individuals to think for themselves. It creates an understanding of the larger context of business issues and the role of business in society, history, culture and ideology. It leads to more creative, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking as a result of the cross-fertilization of ideas and the constantly fresh perspective that this produces.
Barry Camson is an adjunct assistant professor of Management at Bentley University.