As transgressions of civility by business leaders come to light—the fraudulent account scandal at Wells Fargo, the toxic work environment at Uber, the culture of sexual harassment at many organizations—it’s worth a controversial course correction: adding the study of business to the classic liberal arts education.
While business education and a liberal arts training are typically seen as being at odds, if not antithetical, it’s time to place business thinking into the context of larger society.
The perspective that business education and subjects such as literature, political science, and sociology should be separated is rooted in the social realities of the past, when class boundaries firmly separated “tradesmen” from “gentlemen.” But large organizations and businesses are today an integral part of society, providing citizens with the products, services, and resources we need to live, including basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Given this reality, it is curious that a critical examination of business in society has been perceived as oppositional to the goals of liberal arts education.
Most business education today is instead reserved for MBA programs, wherein the entire topic of education is a normative examination of business and markets that is explicitly meant to be prescriptive (as it is in the MBA degree).
Studying a small subset of businesses courses concurrently with literature, political science, sociology, and the like will train more circumspect and contextually-sensitive business leaders and entrepreneurs: individuals who properly see organizations and markets as means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. Furthermore, students who learn how organizations operate and how they fit into the broader societal fabric will likely be better-informed and more agentic employees and stakeholders, as well as more engaged citizens.
We’re familiar with the counter arguments: Would business studies within an undergraduate program lead students to focus more on the job market than on getting an education? And would this shift dilute the goals of undergraduate higher education—exploration, critical thinking, and civic engagement—making college more like a channel for herding graduates into the workforce? While not entirely unfounded, these fears are exaggerated.
First, the majority of college graduates look for jobs in the organized sector, so we are better off as a society if we equip them to be cognizant and discerning employees. Moreover, business studies are, in fact, grounded in the social sciences, so it should not be difficult to ensure that the business courses stay oriented toward fundamental learning rather than applications such as bookkeeping.
A final cause for worry is the seeming elevation of business to the level of intellectual pursuits such as literature or philosophy. On the one hand, we disagree that this putative elevation is bad per se, but on the other hand, we suggest that when the integration of a business curriculum is done well and correctly, it will, in fact, encourage students to use the lens of literature, philosophy, and the like to examine, analyze, understand, and ultimately shape business and its role in and responsibilities to society.
Allaying these valid concerns effectively will require the proper design and integration of curriculum. Needless to say, this will need to be implemented in stages. More importantly, even at steady-state, the number of business courses such integrated programs include should be kept low, and they should be courses designed and taught by faculty in the respective disciplinary departments, rather than by faculty from graduate or undergraduate business schools. This will ensure contextualization of business and markets in a qualitative as well as quantitative sense—business courses will neither overrun the curriculum, nor will they devolve into prescriptive, ‘framework-heavy’ check-lists of to-dos. Finally, we suggest incorporating business courses that are heavily focused on developing critical thinking and expression skills that allow students to apply conceptual learnings within a real-life context of organizations and markets.
Ultimately, we believe, introducing the role and responsibility of business within the structure and charter of a traditional liberal arts education will have a greater impact on business, society and citizens than merely shoehorning a few courses on critical thinking, business ethics and social responsibility into an MBA program.
Mukti Khaireis the Girish and Jaidev Reddy Professor of Practice at Cornell Tech and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.
Christina Wallace is a serial entrepreneur, with experience in tech startups, K12 CS education, and performing arts management.