The recent economic downturn, Wall Street debacle and string of ethical and moral scandals surrounding a number of prominent business leaders has led some observers to question the value and focus of vocationally oriented, pragmatic education programs such as business education and, particularly the MBA. The importance of a Liberal Education is once again gaining some attention.
In my article for the Vancouver Board of Trade, publication, Sounding Board, I said that few MBA programs or executive training programs adequately address the crux of developing leaders. For the most part these programs are theory-oriented in nature, and use the traditional tools of conceptual learning–case studies, lectures, films and discussions–relying on the contrast between what managers do and what leaders do. The problem with many business school leadership programs is that they teach ideas, not real life behaviors, and business school professors are chosen by virtue of their ability to publish detailed research, rather than having had leadership experience themselves.
A New York Times article entitled, “Is It Time To Retrain B-Schools? “says "Critics of business education have many complaints. Some say the schools have become too scientific, too detached from real-world issues. Others say students are taught to come up with hasty solutions to complicated problems. Another group contends schools give students a limited and distorted view of their role – that they graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value and only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership. Such shortcomings may have left business school graduates inadequately prepared to make the decisions that, taken together, might have helped mitigate the financial crisis, critics say."
In an article in the London Times, entitled Harvard's Masters of the Apocalypse, Philip Broughton, a Harvard Business School graduate and author of What They Teach You At Harvard, says, “You can draw up a list of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent history, from Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Lak-shmi Mittal – and there's not an MBA among them. Yet the MBA industry continues to grow, and business schools provide vital income to academic institutions: 500,000 people around the world now graduate each year with an MBA, 150,000 of those in the United States, creating their own management class within global business. From Royal Bank of Scotland to Merrill Lynch, from HBOS to Lehman Brothers, the Masters of Disaster have their fingerprints on every recent financial fiasco."
Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, also argues because students spend so much time developing quick responses to packaged versions of business problems, they do not learn enough about real-world experiences. Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, a historical analysis of business education, shows that, in the 1970s, the idea took hold that a company's stock price was the primary barometer of success, which changed the schools' concept of proper management techniques. Instead of being viewed as long-term economic stewards, he says managers came to be seen as mainly as the agents of the owners - the shareholders – and responsible for maximizing shareholder wealth. He goes on to say that "we can't rely on the usual structure of MBA education, which divides the management world into the discrete business functions of marketing, finance, accounting, and so on."
Warren Bennis and James O'Toole have written how business schools have been on the wrong track for years, claiming among other things that "MBA programs face intense criticism for failing to impart useful skills, failing to prepare leaders, failing to instill norms of ethical behavior.”
For universities, business education is a kind of cash cow. Business schools are less expensive to operate than graduate schools with elaborate labs and research facilities, and alumni tend to be generous with donations. Business education is big business, too. Yet, there have been signs that all is not well in business education. A study of cheating among graduate students, published in 2006 in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education, found that 56 percent of all M.B.A. students cheated regularly – more than in any other discipline. The authors attributed that to "perceived peer behavior" – in other words, students believed everyone else was doing it.
Some employers are also questioning the value of an M.B.A. degree. A research project that two Harvard professors released in 2008 found that employers valued graduates' ability to think through complex business problems, but that something was still lacking. "There is a need to broaden from the analytical focus of M.B.A. programs for more emphasis on skills and a sense of purpose and identity," said David A. Garvin, a professor of business administration and one of the project's authors. Indeed, students themselves may welcome an emphasis on character skills. In surveys that the Aspen Institute regularly conducts, M.B.A. candidates say they actually become less confident during their time in business school that they will be able to resolve ethical quandaries in the workplace.
The solution to the problem of business school programs in preparing leaders and managers may lie in returning to the concept of a liberal education.
The term "liberal education" was first used in classical Greek and Roman times, chosen to emphasize the fact that it helped people deal with their rulers critically. Through time, a liberal education was thought to help a person become wise.
Does a broad, idealistic, liberating education also prepare a person to be valuable to a company? Many business leaders argue that it does. The workplace has changed. Workers no longer stay in one company doing the same job until retirement and most young Generation Y workers today are not reticent to question authority.
Yet, liberal arts education programs are under duress in higher education, in an atmosphere of increasing anti-intellectualism, where uninformed opinions based on little facts and even less study of our history and culture is on a daily basis being spouted by political and business leaders.
In an article by Joseph Epstein, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts,” he argues the division between vocational and liberal arts education, which began during the 19th century with the advent of the land-grant state universities in the US., are today tilting further and further in favor of the vocational. Even within the liberal arts, more and more students are fleeing from the traditional liberal arts courses such as English or History to the marketable subjects such as Economics, in hope that this will bring them the practical credentials that might impress prospective employers.
Epstein says, business schools, especially in the MBA version, are not about education at all, but about so called networking and establishing, for future employers, a credential demonstrating that will do anything to work for them—even give up two years of income and pay high tuition fees for an MBA to do so.
The war on the liberal arts is also born from the same desire of right wing America which has produced voter ID laws, which is an attempt to limit democratic participation. The goal of a liberal arts education was never primarily direct economic benefit for the recipients, it was to produce an educated citizenry.
The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They are necessary and require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. And our current education system in North America is losing that perspective. So says a report by the national commission on the humanities and social sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the very moment when China, Singapore and some European countries are seeking to institute the concept of a broad liberal education, increasingly the U.S. and Canadian higher education institutions are narrowing their focus on scientific and technological enterprises.
The commission goes on to say “At a time when economic anxiety is driving the public toward a narrow concept of education focused on short-term payoffs…there is a convincing case for the value of the liberal arts education,” to sustain a democracy and educated citizenry. As Charles M. Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering says, “All the scientific and technological skills of which we can conceive will not solve our world problems if we do not build and adapt a broad base of human and cultural understandings.”
In an article in the Wall Street Journal, by Melissa Korn, she cites the research by the American Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) which advocates a broad-based liberal arts education and shows that while liberal arts graduates initially make lower salaries compared to business graduates, in the long term the differences are minimal. An excerpt of the AACU’s report states “The case for Liberal Arts goes beyond purely vocational or economic reasons, they are indispensable to the vitality of democracy and future of global understanding and community.”
It’s fashionable these days for many business leaders to lampoon liberal arts graduates and exalt those with professional degrees. Yet as Peter Drucker, often acknowledged as the world’s foremost expert on management and leadership, said this belief is misplaced. Drucker drew many of his insights from literature and social sciences, not economics and business. Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute argues, “The problem is that the broad world of ideas has become largely separated from the world of business.”
Today, some business leaders are hesitant to hire millennials because they are concerned about how well they are prepared for the workplace. That’s the conclusion of the Bentley University PreparedU Project, based on a survey of 3,000 business leaders and corporate recruiters. Among all respondents to the survey, almost 60% said millennials grade out as a “C” or below in terms of being prepared for their first job. What is interesting, is that the preparation was not identified as technical knowledge or skills as being the problem but rather the absence of more broad-based learning and skills such as personal traits, attitudes, communication, interpersonal and creative thinking skills.
Norman Augustine, longtime chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, insists that liberal arts deficiencies are putting the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage. In a 2010 American Management Association Study, less than 50% of the executives polled said their employees had effective communication and innovative-thinking skills and 80% said colleges and universities could better prepare America’s future work force by placing more emphasis on the humanities.
Part of the reasons for the decline of liberal arts in colleges and universities and their focus more on professions, technology and sciences has been an economic one. The rising cost of post secondary education has made a liberal arts education out of reach for most working class and middle class families, and these students are compelled to pursue vocationally oriented educations out of necessity. Second, higher education institutions have partially solved their funding problem by turning more and more to research grants and endowments provided by corporations which are often driven by self interest.
Management guru Henry Mintzberg argues that business skills cannot be taught in classroom, saying that a degree in philosophy or history would be more beneficial. William Sullivan from The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and author of his book, Preparing for Business, Learning from Life: Liberal Arts and Undergraduate Business Education, argues that the separation of business courses which focus on narrow technical study and the broader Liberal Arts approach no longer serves business students, and that an integrated program that focuses on engagement in the real world from a practical, personal and moral perspective, is needed. Thomas Friedman, in his best selling book, The World is Flat, argues that because the world and cultures are so interconnected today, business leaders must gain more knowledge from the Liberal Arts. Arie de Geus, CEO of Royal Dutch/Shell, in his book, The Living Company, says that his greatest insights came from his study of philosophy and psychology, not business.
The Conference Board of Canada created an essential skills profile for new graduates which mirror a Liberal Arts curriculum. In particular, the ability to see and think in systems, ask powerful inquiries, act and think independently, see the bigger picture and deal effectively with complexity, ambiguity and contradictions are hallmarks of Liberal Arts studies which are essential for business leaders.
The Liberal Arts rarely appear in the normal curriculum of the leading business schools in North America, although some business schools such as the Aspen Institute, draw upon humanities literature. David Garvin, Svikant Divar and Patrick Cullen, authors of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education At The Crossroads, argue that the economic recession has made it clear to business leaders they need to sharpen their thinking skills and obtain broader perspectives, something many business schools don’t provide. With few exceptions, most business schools focus on instruction in separate disciplines such as finance, marketing and strategy, with an emphasis on quantifiable methods and analysis.
Lane Wallace, in his article in the New York Times, says that even before the recent financial upheaval, business executives, operating in fast-changing global markets were beginning to realize the value of managers who can think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines. A number of prominent business schools, notably the Rotman School of Business in Toronto, and Stanford Business School, have redesigned their MBA programs integrating Liberal Arts and a multi-disciplinary approach.
Senior executive hiring trends also show the value of Liberal Arts training. A significant number of successful CEOs and other senior executives such as Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), Michael Eisner (Disney), Alan Lafley (Proctor and Gamble), Steve Case (America Online), Meg Whitman (Ebay) and Steve Forbes (Forbes Inc.), have come from a Liberal Arts education rather than a traditional business school.
We need to return to our understanding of the importance of a broad based liberal arts education as one that serves our society best, and particularly provides value to our business and political leaders.