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The False Choice Between Business and the Liberal Arts, and How You Can Avoid It

Academics

The False Choice Between Business and the Liberal Arts, and How You Can Avoid It

Bentley’s PreparedU Project is dedicated to preparing millennials for success in business and in life. This series provides insights into ways that objective can be accomplished.

You don’t have to choose between a business or liberal arts education. So why do so many of us think we do? Logic has nothing to do with it.

No rules declare you must march lockstep through a business program while ignoring the humanities. Nor must a student embrace pure ideas as if we live in Plato’s Academy rather than the real world.

Instead study for an accounting degree, for instance, along with philosophy and, better yet, do so at the same time. But first you’ll need to find a business university — not a typical business school, says Dan Everett, dean of Arts and Science at Bentley University.

At a business university, liberal arts faculty and business teachers form a single community and share an integrated curriculum at the heart of teaching, he says.

For example, at Bentley University, studying English develops your vocabulary and clarity expression while marketing builds and contributes to these, Everett has written. Science requires empirical verification and consideration of alternatives — accountancy builds on these. English and science courses make you a better student just as business courses improve your thinking in the humanities and social sciences.

This integration of arts, sciences, and business is the signature approach at Bentley University. Now you’re practicing educational fusion, says Everett, who coined the term. Cognitive dexterity is yours.

And you’ll need it. An overwhelming majority of employers — three out of four — surveyed in 2015 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities agree that, regardless of major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time compared with students in other fields of study, including business, according to data from the Social Science Research Council.

Earning a business degree should not mean you sacrifice breadth, depth and a set of skills valued by employers in favor of a seemingly more direct path to a profitable career. Business schools must be flexible and creative to meet the demands of our time, says Everett. He says we must infuse business education with arts and sciences in order to create prepared citizens.

And despite what a few studies say, the liberal arts are in danger of becoming obsolete — without, that is, a merger with business education. Students and parents and governments want to see practical knowledge that is measurable in the short term, he says.

The successful path forward might appear to be obvious. Study marketing, yes, and also anthropology. Economics, absolutely, but also political science. Master business statistics, finance and global strategy, and while you’re at it absorb some literature, history and modern languages.

No question you’ll come out ahead with a background in both business and liberal arts. At least, logically, there is no question. But now we enter the realm of human behavior — our biases and entrenched belief systems.

Attitudes must change. People in the humanities must stop moralizing as if higher education as an enterprise doesn’t need to operate in the larger context of reality, says Everett. Business students must stop asking, “Why do I have to learn about literature? This is a business university.”

In the business world, the relationship between these areas is often seamless. Everett describes highly successful CEOs on an advisory council at Bentley University. One financial adviser loves to talk philosophy, his knowledge is vast. Another loves to talk art and owns an enormous collection. Would it be useful to know enough to join in such conversations? Of course.

“People in business realize they are not hiring automatons,” says Everett. “The success of a business has to do with hiring people with a wide variety of knowledge about the world. Creative thinkers with deeply held values and critical-thinking skills.”

We see this respect for art and humanities elsewhere in the world of business, Everett explains. Take the recent actions of Dan Price, founder and CEO of Gravity Payments, a credit-card processing firm in Seattle.

Price read the findings of a 2010 Princeton University study by economist Angus Deaton and Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study found that, to maintain emotional well-being, a person needs to earn a paycheck of about $70,000 annually. Just recently, in mid-April, Price announced that he’s raising the salary of all his employees to that minimum.

“His decision was based on academic research — on Kahneman’s work,” says Everett. “He relied on the discipline of psychology to restructure his company.”

Look at Microsoft, he adds, a software and electronics corporation that is also reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world. Microsoft values people who can analyze spreadsheets and create processes — but cultural expertise hugely matters, too. The company also wants people who can develop insights into the role that products play in everyday lives.

So be prepared. You just never know when business and humanities will meet.

Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.

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