Liberal Arts in a Business Curriculum: “Humbug!” or “Hmmm . . .”?

By Dr. Samuel B. Condic—While there is a general acknowledgment that the liberal arts can contribute to the practice of business, the contribution is typically seen exclusively in terms of utility.  For example, my business school colleagues observe that undergraduates from our own institution perform well in the MBA program in large part because they write well, and writing skills are something emphasized in the University’s liberal arts Core Curriculum.  From industry, we find former P&G Chairman A.G. Lafley penning a blog post extolling the liberal arts because they “enable a student to develop the conceptual, creative, and critical thinking skills that are the essential elements of a well-exercised mind.”  The Wall Street Journal has even weighed in, noting that some MBA programs are incorporating philosophy into their curricula, so as to encourage students to “ponder business in a broader context.”

The idea that studying the liberal arts develops skills that are both transferrable and of great value to business is certainly correct.  Still, to focus exclusively or predominantly on the usefulness of a liberal education leaves it open to criticism regarding the efficiency of such an approach.

If ultimately the value of the liberal arts to a business education is the skill set it provides, it is reasonable to ask whether there is a more direct way of acquiring those same skills.  Being a critical reader and a skilled writer are certainly valuable to someone in business, but must one read and write about Homer, Herodotus, and Heraclitus in order to develop them?  Wouldn’t it be better to practice by reading and writing about business?  Granted that you can gain these skills through a liberal arts program, the question remains whether it is necessary.  If a liberal education is not valued for what it is but only for the effects it produces, what’s the value to a business student to go through the same program?

As it happens, I have confronted this same sort of question before, though in a different context.  A few years back, I taught at a university whose president decided he wanted an additional philosophy course in the core curriculum, a decision that did not sit well with the faculty at large.  The university had and has a strong tradition of practical education, e.g., criminal justice, social work, and nursing.  Unsurprisingly, the wisdom of taking up space in the core with something as abstract as philosophy was greeted with high suspicion.  As chair of the philosophy department, I was asked to provide a justification for the increase during the faculty study day.  My talk centered around three basic observations that are applicable not only to universities in general, but also to business schools in particular and to the practice of business itself.

Observation 1:  Even small things lead to Big Things.

All learning and all human activity lead, at the end of the day, to what John Templeton referred to as the “Big Questions” or what Mortimer Adler called the “Great Ideas.”  When physicists study the order of the cosmos, they are inevitably led to ask how that order itself came about.  The study of life leads biologists to wonder what exactly “life” is and when it begins or ends.  Economics leads to Big Questions regarding what “wealth” is and whether acting in one’s “self-interest” is always ethical.  And so on.  Templeton himself began building his considerable fortune by investing in European penny stocks in 1939, at the outbreak of World War II.  There is no doubt that his willingness to take such risk was driven by his unflagging optimism and belief in progress, and that same outlook fueled his desire to understand the source and character of optimism  itself.  These brief examples are sufficient to illustrate the broader point:  Every discipline and every human activity inescapably leads its practitioners to questions that ultimately transcend the discipline.  As Templeton (and others) show, the life of business is no exception.

Observation 2:  Big Things are life-defining.

No matter what the answer, the Big Questions change who you are.  If physicists conclude that the cosmic order needs no further cause or explanation (if the cosmos needs no God to explain it), physicists (and us) live radically different lives than if they conclude the opposite.  If biologists conclude that “life” is ultimately an arbitrary designation placed on certain types of molecular organization (if life is mere mechanism), then humans merit radically different treatment than they would otherwise.  If wealth is found rather than created and if self-interest is an untrustworthy guide in social and political matters, then distribution of wealth trumps its production and authoritarianism is inevitably necessary to restrain self-interest.  If a general spirit of optimism is not justifiable, then Templeton was lucky rather than smart, and his subsequent philanthropic efforts were foolish.  When one arrives at a Great Idea or a Big Question, one is faced with a defining choice, one where even the abstention from choice fundamentally changes who you are and how you live.

Observation 3:  Philosophy is what studies Big Things.

Transcendent questions are inherently philosophical in character.  When biologists ask what life is, they are asking for more than what can be found in organic chemistry and developmental biology.  Likewise physicists extend themselves into the transcendent when they question the cause of the universe as a whole, and economists do the same when they analyze the role of self-interest in the economy.  Templeton was driven by optimism, but he was never going to find its source along the efficient frontier.  My talk concluded that the additional core course aimed to teach the basic philosophical principles required to answer the Big Questions, in conjunction with the other disciplines.  Believe it or not, my very practical colleagues embraced the answer and philosophy remained in the core.

The liberal arts fit into the above picture because philosophy is not the only discipline whose object is the transcendent.  The Great Ideas drive and define history and politics, for example, and great literature illustrates the importance of Big Questions in human terms.  Shakespeare is “classic” not because he is 500 years old but rather because Hamlet deals with the real questions of loyalty and allegiance, questions big enough to literally die over.  While philosophy investigates Great Ideas in the abstract, the liberal arts provide opportunity to investigate them as lived and in the concrete.  A proper and robust liberal curriculum thus completes the academic project that can begin in any discipline, and it naturally brings unity (rather than mere “enrichment”) to the university experience.

Apart from the undeniable utility of the practical skills they impart, philosophy and the liberal arts are every bit as essential to the life of business as they are to the life of the university.  All areas of human endeavor inevitably lead to questions regarding the highest and most important things, and the answers to these questions not only define our lives but affect our endeavors, as well.  More than ever businesses are asked to define their relationship to the broader community; they are asked to “trade fairly,” “source responsibly,” and to consider all stakeholders when they act.  But what, exactly, do these phrases mean, and what specific obligations do they outline (if any)?  The answers to such questions will not be found through a SWOT market analysis.

At the individual level, everyone eventually faces the choice of trading moral scruples for wealth; i.e., of doing something believed to be unethical in exchange for some sort of economic consideration.  While the moral aspect to this dilemma is easily solved (if it’s wrong, don’t do it!), determining whether the contemplated action really is immoral rather than just distasteful, unpopular, or unpleasant is the deeper question.  Your organizational psychology class maybe (just maybe) can provide guidance on how the action is perceived in a given cultural context, but philosophy is required to resolve the deeper ethical dilemma, and disciplines such as history and literature show you how the consequences of ethical choices play out.

In these and other cases, the theoretical knowledge imparted by philosophy and the practical application of such knowledge as learned through the liberal arts is essential not only to moral behavior but also to the right working of the enterprise.  No matter one’s chosen course in life, an encounter with Big Things is inevitable.  Through philosophy and the liberal arts, we equip ourselves with the knowledge needed to make the encounter both positive and productive.

Samuel B. Condic, Ph.D.
Visiting Asst. Professor – Management & Marketing

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