By Eric Garneau
If you've got friends in the liberal arts - or you study them yourself - you've probably heard the stereotype that those crazy kids in English, history or philosophy departments don't do any 'real' work. They sit around and read all day - or, worse yet, they just think. What's so hard about that? According to the latest National Survey of Student Engagement, though, it's business majors who do most of the slacking - they spend less time preparing for class than any other major.
A recent book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reports on a correlated phenomenon. According to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, business majors show the lowest gains in reasoning and writing abilities after two years of college. That's probably not a good sign for a program usually thought of as eminently practical.
Closer examination of what really happens in many business schools, though, can help explain that data. A recent New York Times article posits several major problems. Chief among them is that, for many college students, majoring in business represents a default choice. They do it because it seems like it will get them a good job; they have no real interest in the wider learning experiences afforded by college.
Other factors, too, can lead to student malaise. For instance, business courses in many schools typically emphasize group work. For some students, that forms the bulk of their education. It seems like a solid idea in theory - after all, students who go on to work in the business world will certainly work as part of a team. However, in practice students tend not to step outside their comfort zones, choosing to work on the aspects of a project with which they're already most familiar. In the worst cases, students in groups do no work at all.
Is it really possible to get through college that way? The New York Times reports that business seniors at Radford University in Virginia spend an average of 3.64 hours a week studying and doing homework. Compare that to the nationwide college average, which the University of Buffalo cites as 15 hours a week per student, and you can see a significant discrepancy.
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Of course, if they were learning everything they need, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing that business students can get by doing less work. But when key abilities like reasoning and writing suffer, there seems to be a problem. Some educators, like Dr. Leonard A. Schlesinger of Babson College in Massachusetts, emphasize the importance of combining the knowledge learned in business school with a more rounded liberal arts education. After all, concrete business skills change with the global economy, but the critical thinking abilities gained from disciplines like history and philosophy last a lifetime.
Some schools are already on that bandwagon. The New York Times talks about, for instance, the University of Virginia's top-rated business program, which involves tag-team groups of instructors that critique students not just on business knowledge but on their ability to critically and contextually assess case studies and write individual papers communicating what they observe and think. The Times also points out that such a program was difficult to implement, and it probably won't be making its way into many other schools with any kind of haste.
But take heart! This doesn't mean that if you're a business student you won't get a good education. As always, the real value of an individual's college experience often rests with the individual him or herself. Still, it may be helpful to heed the message of Dr. Schlesinger and like-minded educators: try to get a rounded education. Don't ignore the liberal arts because they seem less practical. In reality, the opposite may be true.
If studying business is your calling, here's some information on the top schools that do it right!