Business schools are not the enemy of the liberal arts

Other windows onto the world are available. Tim Waters/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Business schools constitute a large and growing part of higher education. They have expanded so rapidly in recent decades that they now educate one in seven undergraduates in North America and Europe. Yet despite their popularity with fee-paying students, business schools are vulnerable.

The financial press considers them to be liable for the crimes (moral or otherwise) that led to the global financial crisis. Senior politicians deride their intellectual contribution and students complain about the low standards of teaching. Even business school academics claim their institutions are in crisis.

With such fragile foundations why is business education so popular and what does its unrelenting growth mean for the future of higher education?

The status of business and management as an academic subject is undermined by those I will call “traditionalists” working in, broadly defined, “humanities” or “liberal arts” disciplines. These scholars offer myths about true liberal education and how universities are being corrupted by subjects outside the humanities. In response, I offer a defence of business schools as fascinating places to understand the contemporary world, and offer a liberal vision for business education of the future.

Cambridge professor of intellectual history and English, Stefan Collini, a distinctive voice in the education cacophony around liberal education, uses statistics about the size of business schools as evidence for how universities have lost their way. According to Collini and others, universities have “sold out” to an aggressive market ideology. This system prioritises quantity over quality and delivers an increasingly instrumental curriculum resting on feeble vocationalism.

According to the traditionalists the true aim of a university, much like a Grand Tour or backpacking gap year, is to become an oasis of cultural leisure. The cloisters protect scholars and students from the everyday concerns of the wider world, for a few years at least. It is better to ignore the eurozone crisis and contemporary Greece, a grubby political economic mess, and focus on ancient Greece, a purely intellectual republic.

Humanities scholars hold onto an ideal of traditional “purity” in education. Their sensitivity to culture leads to the drawing of exclusive categories. There is little space given for anything meaningful between the polarised cultures of arts and sciences. Business schools – and related social science disciplines – find themselves lost in a barren no man’s land.

Contemporary, general and liberal

In contrast to the traditionalists, I believe that the popularity of business schools is in good measure to do with their liberal generalism. Business and management is a complex field of enquiry extending across the social sciences, humanities and into areas of engineering. William Ashley, an Oxford-trained historian and the UK’s first professor of commerce in 1901, called this “liberal utilitarianism”.

Accusations of vocationalism are misinformed: business schools are actually often more about ideas than training practical or technical skills. The ideas discussed in business schools are often not only critical of management practices but in direct opposition to them. For example, Leicester’s Martin Parker has recently asked how we might look for organisational alternatives to hierarchy. Business school academics, trained in various disciplines, have introduced a plurality of critical perspectives about contemporary social life. Humanities scholars could use these concepts to strengthen their often glib critique of capitalist society.

There is perhaps fear that the humanities are under genuine threat of extinction in universities. But this is the reaction from any worldview that fails to adapt to a changing world. Berkeley’s Sheldon Rothblatt describes in the book Revolution of the Dons how the University of Cambridge has for centuries been vigorously debating whether subjects like natural science, applied mathematics and literature are “pure” enough to be worthy of a Cambridge education. Slowly the university adapted to social and technological change, even creating a business school in 1990.

Business schools are popular because they are generalist in outlook, relevant to the contemporary world and welcoming to students from around the world. The opportunity to learn a breadth of historically informed yet contemporary subjects, within a wider community of higher learning, explains their growth in recent decades.

University-based business schools are set back from the dynamics of the private marketplace as much as any other university department. They are places for the exchange of ideas not commodities. Thinking about business in universities can – and should – be more focused on how we come to learn about the complexity of the world and ourselves. We need universities to debate the dynamic challenges of business, not ignore them.

Co-exist with humanities, not replace them

Business schools can become the contemporary embodiment of liberal education in universities of the future. This does not mean they should replace what we currently understand as the humanities – they can work with the humanities and other subjects in a shared history of ideas. As American philosopher John Dewey reflected, no subject is “inherently liberal”. Business schools have grown by attracting new students into university, not by somehow poaching them from humanities.

The future of universities is not business versus the humanities. Business class via auremar/www.shutterstock.com

There is already a movement towards embedding the business school more fully in the intellectual life of the university. In recent years business school deans and influential foundations have set out a stronger, more liberal, vision for business school curricula. Much of this revives the early ideals of business schools at the turn of the 20th century before boundaries between the disciplines became entrenched.

At my current institution we are starting to move in this direction, having recently developed courses offering a wide range of perspectives on business, including history, philosophy and data analytics. A colleague and I have been delivering an undergraduate module on philosophy of management and organisations, which is an attempt to ask what the history of ideas and philosophical method can tell us about the commercial world we see around us. The response from students has been extremely positive.

Business schools are now a major part of the higher education landscape and this is something the traditionalists need to accept. Instead of holding onto a myth of intellectual purity, or fighting over cultural supremacy, they should help to make business schools an integral part of the academic community.