Blueprint for a Better Business Curriculum

June 05, 2011

Business is the largest undergraduate major in the United States, and it's still growing. Yet research published this year in the book Academically Adrift indicates that students who major in business spend less time preparing for classes than their peers in other disciplines and show less proficiency on tests that assess their writing and thinking abilities. The authors of Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass) offer a particularly timely articulation of how colleges and universities can connect liberal and professional learning to help undergraduate business students expand their intellectual development, exercise stronger professional judgment, and make a meaningful social contribution. Here is an excerpt from their book:

Due to the rising costs of higher education and the challenges of the employment market, students and their parents today consider preparation for work a top priority among the goals of higher education, and this preference is reflected in the large percentage of students choosing to major in professional or vocational fields. Because more undergraduate students major in business than in any other single field, it would seem there might be a distinctive character or identity to studying business at the college level. But we did not find this to be the case. Undergraduate business education seems to be widely understood as a kind of simplified M.B.A. program. In institutions that offer both M.B.A. and undergraduate business degrees, the undergraduate program rarely has its own faculty or dean, and its curriculum resembles that of the graduate program. A more distinctive identity for undergraduate business programs would acknowledge that this is their students' college education as well as professional preparation. This means, in the American tradition of liberal education, that students need to be prepared for their futures as citizens and persons as well as entrants into the work force.

To meet the needs of today's increasingly complex context, undergraduate business programs should help their students develop intellectual perspectives that enable them to understand the role of the field within the larger social world. In keeping with this aim, business programs should uphold and cultivate among students a sense of professionalism grounded in loyalty to the mission of business to enhance public prosperity and well-being. To accomplish this, business education must be integrated with liberal learning.

We believe that undergraduate education of every kind should enable students to make sense of the world and their place in it, preparing them to use knowledge and skills as means toward responsible engagement with the world. In order to contribute to the larger life of society, students must be able to draw on varied bodies of knowledge. They need to gain fluency in looking at issues from multiple points of view, which requires the opportunity to explore with others different ways of posing problems and defining purposes. These are the traits that have historically defined a liberal education. In this sense, the question of what business education should provide for students is part of the more fundamental question of what a college education should provide.

Research on educational attainment provides abundant evidence that a college education produces significant lifelong effects. College is a prime moment for students, including many older students, to question and redefine their core sense of who they are. It offers the opportunity to expand their understanding of the world and to develop skills they will need to make their way in it. College education enables students to grow as whole persons as well as develop their minds and strengthen their working skills. It helps awaken their intellectual curiosity and self-reflection and can aid their evolution toward attaining a sense of responsibility for the common good.

Today's educational challenge is to prepare students for a world in which ensuring the welfare of the human population must take place within a concern for planetary survival. In such a context, a college education needs more than ever to enable students to understand the world and find their place in it. Beyond that, higher education's mission requires helping students develop so they can and will contribute to the life of their times. These are ideals long espoused by the tradition of liberal education and represented in the core commitments that define professional preparation. These aims have become especially important in the education of business undergraduates today because of the critical and pervasive role of business in contemporary life.

Business programs, like all forms of professional preparation, immerse students in the values and mind-sets that are peculiar to the field; in business this means, most prominently, the logic of the marketplace. This immersion holds the attendant danger that students will lose sight of the larger pluralism of institutional sectors and spheres of value within which business has to operate. This is not just a theoretical concern. Indeed, we found it distressingly common, even in high-quality programs, to hear students say that their business courses had taught them that "everything is business"—overlooking the different values represented by their families, religious congregations, and communities.

Like all undergraduates, business students need the ability to grasp the pluralism in ways of thinking and acting that is so salient a characteristic of the contemporary world. And it is especially important that business students learn to recognize and distinguish between the dominant logic of business and the marketplace, on the one hand, and, on the other, the very different values and ways of acting that hold sway in the family and the domestic sphere, the worlds of science and education, the arts, and within a democratic government. Business graduates will need facility in moving among these different spheres of value and logics of action. They will benefit from learning to see business and its logic from the outside as well as from within.

The need to grasp this pluralism of values and contexts is, we believe, a weak link in the current organization of undergraduate business programs.

Most business programs require their students to take a substantial number of courses outside the business disciplines, in classic arts and sciences fields such as English composition, literature, history, the social sciences, science, and mathematics. However, the relation of these studies to students' major courses in business is rarely well articulated or closely coordinated. The overall program as it stands now might be thought of as a curricular barbell: Each end of the bar carries a significant weight of intellectual subject matter, but the connection is slender. On the two ends of the barbell, students encounter courses taught by different groups of faculty, often from different schools or colleges, who have little contact with their colleagues on the other side of the curriculum. The linkages between the two ends of the barbell receive little explicit attention, either in the way the curriculum is organized or in how courses are taught.

This arrangement is not the best way to support the high-quality, interconnected learning that today's students need in order to understand the relation of business to the larger world. In recent decades, research on human learning has made it clear that effective learning depends significantly on learners' intentions and motivation. With business students' focus on career preparation as the most important outcome of college, the goals of liberal education are more achievable if they are explicitly related to students' existing horizon of interest.

Liberal learning has the potential to broaden and reshape such initially narrow purposes, but for this to occur students must come to see how and why the perspectives of the arts-and-sciences disciplines open up and provide insight into matters of concern to them. This requires a kind of teaching that systematically leads students to grasp and participate in making such connections.

Our aim is to stimulate and contribute to a national discussion about business education and its future by focusing on approaches that work to integrate the two ends of the usual barbell curriculum.

Rather than a barbell, we envision something more like a double helix.

Borrowing from the famous DNA model developed by Watson and Crick, we propose the double helix as a metaphor for an undergraduate business curriculum that explicitly and continually links students' learning of business to their use of various arts-and-sciences disciplines that provide a larger, complementary view of the world.

This is not simply an imagined possibility. We have observed courses and entire programs that explicitly put the disciplinary insights and tools of the social sciences and humanities to use in this way. We first encountered the double-helix metaphor at Santa Clara University. There, and in similar programs, we saw the liberal arts and sciences used to provide an understanding of the other institutional sectors that business depends on, such as effective public education systems organized by governments, and the ways in which business affects those other institutional contexts. Through these double-helix approaches, faculty as well as students can develop facility in navigating the pluralism of values and operating logics that will mark their graduates' actual lives as business professionals and as citizens.

In the absence of this kind of integrative consciousness, undergraduate business education is often narrow. By this we mean that it provides too little depth of understanding about or flexibility of perspective on the tools and concepts employed in business disciplines. This leads students to view these conceptual tools not as hypotheses to be employed for specific purposes but as simple and complete descriptions of reality. This limits students' development as thinkers—and in doing so threatens to undermine the creative thinking that feeds innovation.

By contrast, when there is more intentional integration of liberal-learning approaches with business—double-helix style—faculty can help students achieve more-advanced educational goals. They can also strengthen students' sense of professional purpose by showing more effectively how business is interconnected with other dimensions of society and the environment.

Implementing this integrative approach will require significant and sometimes difficult reform—that is the nature of innovation. But there is much to build on, historically and in current campus practice.

Anne Colby is a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a consulting professor at Stanford University; Jonathan R. Dolle is an associate partner for research and development at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Thomas Ehrlich is a visiting professor at the Stanford University School of Education; and William M. Sullivan is a senior scholar at the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, in Crawfordsville, Ind.