In a world of open access, higher education remains astonishingly, frustratingly closed. Our universities are insurmountable barriers rather than the points of universal entry that they should be. This was the powerful point of a compelling Economist cover story last year, “America’s New Aristocracy.” The essay argues that college in the U.S. has become a class distinction, a marker of privilege, not unlike the way it was traditionally in England.
Nowhere is this more evident these days than in America’s top business schools, where prosperity is promised to all, but the hierarchy of class is perpetuated and routinely reinforced through the selection of students and faculty by conventional means from traditional places, the adherence to a single-minded vocational curriculum, and the exclusivity of insiders who graduate from the closed confines of the classroom to those of the board room.
And yet, in no other discipline are graduates better positioned to create an immediate, tangible change to society. Through socially responsible perspectives, collaborative problem-solving, and practical and continued learning, the air of privilege and the stink of elitism in business education can be extinguished. But to achieve this more egalitarian society, existing models of delivering business education need to be dismantled.
While our students collaborate in a wider, more fluid horizontal world—boundaryless, diverse, and technologized—we remain vertically institutional no matter what we may profess. It may be time to change the way business schools do business.
That’s where a liberal arts approach to education comes in. It has the potential to enact great structural changes in the way young people from all backgrounds learn about and participate in the larger world.
Developed in ninth-century Europe—though some claim it first appeared either earlier or later—the liberal arts curriculum originally had two main areas of instruction: the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). The goal was to cultivate a particular quality of mind, to impart in the student a wider worldview. This is especially relevant to our own world of rapid and constant change, but in medieval Europe, the aim was to preserve things the way they were, to keep everyone in their social order. Thus the liberal arts curriculum was taught exclusively in Latin, the language of the gentry.
It wasn’t really until around a hundred years ago that the liberal arts curriculum began to stop perpetuating privilege and started emphasizing more forward-thinking forms of knowledge. This is the revolution that John Dewey launched with the 20th-century Progressive Education movement. He believed in a “See One, Do One, Teach One” approach to learning, where student apprentices received a hands-on education and then went on to teach future generations with the same approach. This model persists today in medical education, which requires that young doctors train by working alongside their experienced elders. Remarkably, this is a relatively new development in business education, even though it is essentially a vocational area of study.
"In a 'See One, Do One, Teach One' approach to learning ... student apprentices received a hands-on education and then went on to teach future generations with the same approach."
Dewey re-imagined the liberal arts curriculum as a foundation for the professions, a way of giving us better teachers, engineers, specialists of all kinds. A pure extension of pragmatism, this mode of education celebrated the cash value of ideas: the better an idea, the bigger value it has in the real world. To this end, Dewey wanted his new learning system to produce a great middle class of socially responsible, well-informed citizens with common values. At a moment when everyone talked of the Rise of the American Century, the middle class was to be the foundation of all intelligence and productivity.
A century later, liberal arts education has undergone yet another transformation. In many ways, it’s a good change: today’s liberal arts curricula embrace both the social responsibility of Dewey and the wide worldview of Trivium and Quadrivium. But the downside is that, as Columbia professor Andrew Delbanaco tells us in the 2014 documentary, Ivory Tower, today’s youth are underprepared for the responsibilities of adult life, and college does little to help. The film ultimately suggests that universities have become a playground.
With a liberal arts approach to education increasingly out of reach for business students, it’s time to rethink not only the business school curriculum itself but also the way we teach it—and who does the teaching. Here are three things our institutions can do to re-invigorate liberal arts into business education at this critical moment.
Drop the “one and done” model. Let’s try developing curricula that work like Legos, each individual component a small piece that we can re-combine within the larger system to produce an infinite number of creations. This will provide teachers with new tools and opportunities to open up their pedagogy to respond in real time to the concerns and demands of the outside world. It will also allow for more cross-disciplinary collaboration and experimentation. In promoting this model of perpetual growth, we need to incorporate continuing education—ongoing certifications and opportunities for students, teachers, and professionals to update old expertise—so that learning carries on beyond the classroom.
Flip the classroom. Forget Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). The real innovation in learning is happening at the Khan Academy. Whereas MOOCs—including TED, Coursera, and edX—reproduce tired models of knowledge transmission with talking heads delivering lectures to a questionably captive audience, the Khan Academy represents a radical change in the way we imagine the classroom. In this model, students receive the primary course material to read through and learn before coming to class. This way, during actual class time, the instructor can work with the students in applying the shared concepts to real situations. This flipped-classroom approach is essentially applied liberal arts: the high-mindedness of Trivium and Quadrivium meets the practicality of John Dewey.
Put faculty insiders on the outside and outsiders on the inside. The best teachers have had meaningful experiences related to their field of study out in the real world. We need practitioners in the classroom. Conversely, we need the expertise of teachers and researchers in industry organizations. Let’s cultivate professors who are also professionals and professionals who are also professors. Some people call this kind of Renaissance person the “pracademic” (the practical academic). The idea is that those who create and teach knowledge should also be practitioners of it. Seeking out and nurturing pracademics will better bring together universities and their immediate communities. Through initiatives like Collaborative Open Innovation Networks (COINs), professors can make new connections with unlikely intellectual partners as they move in, across, and outside of the academy.
The liberal arts curriculum is not a fixed set of universal ideas but an ever-changing model of approaching our world’s most important issues as the issues themselves evolve. The more fluid we are with our teaching, the more open-minded and diverse our students will become. It’s an imperative not only for instructors and business school administrators but also for public officials and parents—for all of us. Let’s start by integrating the practical and the academic in business education. The semester is already—indeed, always—under way. Let’s get to work.
Jeff DeGraff is a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and an author, speaker, and advisor to hundreds of top organizations in the world. Follow him at www.jeffdegraff.com and on Twitter @JeffDeGraff.