Combining Liberal Arts With A Business Degree

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Not long ago on this blog and over at my college blog at CBS MoneyWatch I explored the prominent trend on campuses across the country – the business degree mania.  I you missed the posts, here they are

8 Reasons not to Get a Business Degree

Why You Don’t Need to Major in Business

Today I want to share some thoughtful observations on the topic from Daniel L. Everett, the Dean of Arts & Sciences at Bentley University, which is a business school in Massachusetts.  Everett’s academic specialty, by the way, is not in business, but Amazonian tribal languages.  I thought you’d enjoy Everett’s take on combining business with the liberal arts.

FYI, I’m going to share an amazing new book in my next blog post that can help your children squeeze as much value as possible out of their years in college with advice that includes choosing majors. Stay tune for that.

Daniel L. Everett’s Thoughts on Business Degrees

In a recent column on it is stated that: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, students don’t need to major in business to succeed. Frankly, I believe students often enjoy a better chance at landing good jobs if they major in a liberal art like economics, history, chemistry, a foreign language, English lit or philosophy.”

As the Dean of Arts & Sciences at a business university I am in a unique position – and perhaps have some different views on the topic. The first sentence is obviously true – I don’t believe that anyone at any university has ever encouraged students to major in business with the slogan “Major in business or fail.” In fact, you don’t need to major in anything to succeed in life, whether you define success financially or in terms of personal satisfaction – Bill Gates is one of many examples of financial success without college and I know many Amazonian Indians who lead satisfying and satisfied lives without even kindergarten.

While there are some truisms in the column – life has no guarantees and no one path to success or happiness – the reasoning against undergraduate degrees in business seems to be insufficiently nuanced to support the conclusions.

A Lack of Broad Learning

It is absolutely right to sound an alarm over the escalating costs of higher education and the lack of broad learning that is the hallmark of some business programs. And as someone who has encouraged my children and many friends over the years to major in philosophy, I could not agree more with Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s identical suggestion – philosophy teaches one how to think critically more than perhaps any other course of study.

But there are many people who do not want to major in liberal arts and sciences, in courses like philosophy. That is why new data from the Social Science Research Council is so alarming: “Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains…”

By moving away from the liberal arts, students risk not developing many of the skills they will most need in life and in their careers. And the mass turning away from the arts and sciences that is all too often a side-effect of the growth of business majors could even be said to threaten to dumb-down American society more generally.

Combining Business and The Arts & Sciences

But there are alternatives to this doomsday scenario that combine the best of business and arts and sciences.

First, we need to recognize that students’ professional objectives and education can be merged in a new educational fusion. This fusion is the integration of arts and sciences with business where philosophy, science, math, history, English, modern languages, etc. work in tandem with professional courses to provide a novel type of education – one in which professional education and arts and sciences each add value to the other. The arts and sciences should be encountered in a place of learning (not merely on line) where culturally important knowledge, contexts of learning, critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication skills are developed simultaneously with rigorous mentoring and training in professional learning.

Combining Business and the Liberal Arts

Bentley University, where I serve as dean, offers just one example of this new educational fusion. Every student here must major or minor in business while simultaneously enrolled in a basic core of liberal arts courses. Nearly 800 of Bentley’s 4,000 undergraduates are double-majoring in business and our innovative Liberal Studies major – which students complete by combining writing, faculty mentoring, and general education courses in a themed environment, without additional major courses.

Once given a solid foundation in the humanities, professionals will go on to educate themselves and maintain their interest. The recent job placement rate at our university – 99% of the surveyed graduating class is employed or in graduate school six months after graduation – illustrates this substantially. Business executives tell us often, “The basic business skills are what get you a job at our company. But to advance, you need the broad background of the liberal arts.”

Business vs. Liberal Arts

We should not portray the current crisis in American education as business versus the liberal arts. All of us in higher education recognize our responsibility to contribute to our students’ quality of mental, social, and professional life. And we are all concerned that the costs are getting out of hand. (But who will be the first to eliminate athletics and manicured campuses – some of the most costly items at any university?)

A business major is one of the best majors any student could choose. So is philosophy. But to combine them in a single course of study might be the best of all.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow her on Twitter.

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