By Douglas G. Campbell, PhD and James E. Fletcher, PhD
It is no secret that student interest in the traditional liberal arts programs has decreased.1 As a result these programs are often small. By the traditional liberal arts we are referring to the languages, literature, history, rhetoric, mathematics, philosophy, religion, music and art history. The physical sciences at many schools have also seen a disturbing downturn in interest. By the physical sciences we mean physics, chemistry, and the various earth sciences. In contrast, the applied professional preparation programs have grown dramatically. Today, more than twenty percent of U.S. undergraduates are management or business majors,2 nearly double the next most common major, and that percentage has been relatively steady for many years.
At many universities there exists a real psychological and professional barrier between the applied professional preparation degree programs and the traditional liberal arts programs, and to a lesser degree the physical sciences. This barrier of differing perspectives has disadvantaged our students. Speaking as faculty of a School of Management, we argue that management and business programs are natural allies to the traditional liberal arts and the physical sciences, and that collaboration would benefit students, as well the faculty of these disciplines. In our experiences, we have not seen such collaboration to any meaningful degree.
Recognizing the growing student interest in preparing for business careers, some in the liberal arts community have launched public relations campaigns to build their own image at the expense of the management and business degree programs. One example of this is advertising a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) with the almost humorous claim that it is the “New MBA.”3 Some in the popular media have joined in this effort, publishing claims4 that many business and corporate recruiters are eschewing management and business school graduates for liberal arts majors, supposedly for their superior thinking skills and creativity, despite evidence to the contrary.5
Some in the liberal arts consider the professional preparation programs not just as competitors, but as enemies. In 2007, the faculty of the arts and sciences at Harvard University declared that professional studies programs were hampering the objectives of liberal education. Their official policy statement alleged that only the liberal arts encourage self-reflection, teach students to think critically and analytically, and expose them to radically different concepts. This document also claims that employers, professional schools, and most academic graduate programs “deliberalize students: they train them to think as professionals.”6
The implication that professional preparation programs do not value, teach or encourage creative thinking, critical analysis, analytical thinking, questioning of assumptions, self-reflection and socio-political awareness is simply incorrect, and if seriously believed, reflects a serious misunderstanding on the part of Harvard’s liberal arts and sciences faculty regarding the focus and content of professional preparation programs. It indicates that some among the Liberal Arts faculty overestimate their own uniqueness. It is also important to note the almost Marxist quality of their low opinion of “professionals,” which is an issue we will address.
We have observed that this attitude toward applied professional preparation programs is unfortunately not uncommon among liberal arts faculty in many, if not most universities. Their attitude, along with some smugness on the part of many faculty members of the professional preparation programs, contributes to a lack of discourse, and little if any collaboration to improve higher education.
The success of management and business programs has made them frequent targets of liberal arts faculty. Some of these liberal arts critics of professional programs even suggest that management and business education programs should be eliminated at the undergraduate level. Most take a more rational approach to the issue, often calling for a greater emphasis on the liberal arts by adding additional liberal arts courses to the undergraduate management and businesses degree requirements.
A thoughtful book that is receiving a lot of attention is Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession,7 whose authors claim that business education for undergraduates “is too often narrow, failing to challenge students to question assumptions, think creatively, or understand the place of business in larger institutional context.” This book’s authors also stated that, “the divide between business and liberal-arts offerings, however unintentional, has hurt students, who see their business instruction as ‘isolated’ from other disciplines.”
The above criticism and behaviors are not always well received by the faculty of management and business programs. They are more likely to perceive that it is the liberal arts and sciences that have isolated themselves. Many contend that based on personal observation, today’s liberal arts majors are no more likely to question assumptions, think analytically or creatively, or have a solid foundation in ethics and human nature, than students of other majors.
Many knowledgeable people would argue that today’s liberal arts programs have lost their once deserved reputation for rationality, igniting the imagination, and searching for the truth and an understanding of human achievements because they have allowed themselves to be infiltrated by radical collectivists and anti-capitalists who adhere to a doctrine of the truth is relative, facts are just perceptions and the end justifies the means. Anyone who thinks we overstate the radicalization of these departments should review the California Association of Scholars’ recent report on .8
For those of us with a firm foundation in the traditional liberal arts, the pollution of those disciplines with Marxist doctrine is particularly confounding. Marxism, radical-collectivism and hostility to free enterprise are the antithesis of the traditional liberal arts’ search for truth, virtue, beauty and the meaning of human existence, and its commitment to intellectual freedom and personal choice. We assert that the presence of this disingenuous fifth column is the primary barrier to civil discourse and genuine collaboration between our disciplines, and, we believe, the primary reason that many students have told us their liberal arts courses resemble torturous indoctrination instead of an introduction to new and exciting challenges, perspectives and ways of thinking that stretch the mind and excite the soul.
Despite the obstacles, we think that many management and business faculty members would welcome a greater degree of synergy between their programs and the arts and sciences. We understand just as well as faculty in the liberal arts that the most important questions of our lives reach beyond the materialistic. We strongly believe that university students should have a strong base in the traditional liberal arts and the physical sciences to help them become successful and satisfied professionals. A broad and balanced education in the traditional liberal arts and physical sciences is essential for understanding how to effectively work with people to understand and solve problems as well as to accomplish individual, organizational and social goals. To properly understand and achieve the full potential of management or business opportunities, one needs to have a firm grasp of the scientific realities and possibilities, and to understand the depth of the human creature and the human experience. A business professional must be able to think logically and rationally to solve complex problems, as well as be a creative thinker who understands and appreciates others’ views and utilizes scientific methodology.
The fields of management and business are defined as multidisciplinary because they draw upon information from many disciplines to develop professional practices and processes. Having a good foundation in history, literature, religion, art and science are of immense value in understanding business opportunities and obstacles, customer service, marketing, and advertising. However, management and business faculty have often found themselves teaching subjects at a remedial level that should have been addressed in some history, literature, philosophy or physical science course. This detracts from the level of advancement that can be achieved in a professional preparation degree program with properly prepared students. It is frustrating when a new management or business student has no foundation in ethics, logic, critical analysis, historical events or even a concept of world geography despite having taken courses that supposedly covered those subjects in their required general education courses. At our former university, California State University Chico, at graduation time some faculty members sadly joked, “There go our graduates, very well trained but kept ignorant.” We do not believe that this lament is unique to our former university, but have reason to believe that it is a commonly shared belief among faculty at other institutions of higher education.
Reconciliation and collaboration between business faculty and liberal arts and sciences faculty are possible. Invitations should be exchanged and accepted by the traditional liberal arts, the physical sciences, and management and business faculty, to examine each other’s subjects, with the objective of establishing a working group to find ways to improve, relate to, and support each other’s curriculum. Specifically, traditional liberal arts faculty should attend the introductory management course, the ethics and business law course or courses, the organizational behavior course, and a marketing course. Faculty of physical sciences might attend entrepreneurial business courses. Likewise, faculty from the school of business should attend some appropriate liberal arts and science courses, including logic and critical thinking, classical philosophy, interpersonal and group communication, and extemporaneous speaking. We also suggest that some business faculty would greatly benefit from a better understanding of engineering processes, new materials and recent break-through scientific events. The desired outcome would be a better understanding, and hopefully an appreciation of the content and complexity of what is taught by the other departments and how each other’s courses do or can intersect, relate, support or collide. An open exchange of information and perspectives could allow instructors to relate material from their courses to another discipline’s courses, thereby supporting the relevance of both.
Hopefully, such exchange and collaboration will lead to the realization that management and business programs and traditional liberal arts and physical science departments are natural allies in efforts to maximize the benefits and virtues of a higher education. The general education curriculum of a university should be fully two years and dominated by the traditional basic liberal arts and the physical science courses. We think that more students might then choose to major in the liberal arts and sciences. If unencumbered by additional general education requirements, the second two years of a four year degree program are sufficient time for the management and business profession programs, assuming that students have received a quality general education program through the traditional liberal arts and physical sciences departments. During the first two years, the professional preparation programs could offer voluntary social events where their faculty and students could discuss the implications of what they are learning in general education to their future professional preparation program. It would also be helpful if the faculty would work to eliminate barriers and obstacles to students wishing to minor in each other’s departments. Currently, many departments have rules that prevent or discourage an academic minor in a very different discipline. This overprotective and defensive behavior is not in the best interests of the students.
We assert that many, if not the majority of management, business, traditional liberal arts, and the physical sciences faculty would be receptive to the types of collaboration that we have proposed. We see no downside to the proposed collaboration. We do acknowledge that the sociology, psychology and political science departments and the assorted race, gender and ethnic studies programs, will, like the applied professional preparation programs, have to confine their courses to students of junior and senior status.
Dr. Douglas G. Campbell and Dr. James E. Fletcher are both with Walden University’s School of Management. Dr. Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dr. Fletcher can be reached at email@example.com. They were assisted by Dr. Charles Geshekter who is a retired Professor of History formerly with California State University, Chico.
1 - Professional Note the Decline of Liberal Arts Majors. (2011) by Catherine Groux, available at
2 - U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2011). Available at http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37
3 - The MFA Is the New MBA (April 14, 2008). By Katherine Bell. Available at http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2008/04/the_mfa_is_the_new_mba.html
4 - Wealth or Waste? Rethinking the Value of a Business Major (April 5, 2012). By Melissa Korn. Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304072004577323754019227394.html
5 - Job Outlook 2012, from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Available from http://www.naceweb.org/Research/Job_Outlook/Job_Outlook.aspx?referal=research&menuID=69
6 - Report of the Task Force on General Education (2007), Harvard University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Available at http://www.sp07.umd.edu/HarvardGeneralEducationReport.pdf
7 - Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (2011) by Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, William M. Sullivan, Jonathan R. Dolle, and Lee S. Shulman. Published by Jossey-Bass/Carnegie San Francisco. http://www.josseybass.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470889624.html
8 - Politics, Education and more politics: NAS’s new report on the University of California. (Apr 11, 2012) by Peter Wood, Available at http://www.nas.org/articles/politics_education_and_more_politics_nass_new_report_on_the_university_of_c