Johann Neem: “Abolish the Business Major”

Neem 1It is hard to argue with Western Washington University historian Johann Neem on this point.  The business major is an “anti-intellectual” degree program that should have “no place in colleges.” Why? Neem develops his thoughts in his new book What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.  In an essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Neem argues that business majors should be abolished because:

1. Business majors earn just as much money as liberal arts majors.

2. Business degrees do not teach the skills that employers value.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Ultimately, then, the reason to abandon business degrees is because college is not for anything and everything. A college graduate ought to be a different kind of person than someone who did not attend college. The issue is not just skills, but character. It is not about being for or against business, but rather about ensuring the specific kinds of education that a college degree should represent. A good college education offers access to the knowledge requisite to be a thoughtful interpreter of the world, fosters the academic skills necessary to develop meaningful interpretations on one’s own, and cultivates intellectual virtues. In other words, college is defined by its content — by the kinds of things that one ought to think about.

The business major is for students who want a college degree without a college education. The philosopher Tal Brewer has written that the very notion of business school is an “oxymoron.” The word “scholar” derives from the Greek word for leisure. Colleges are places where people step aside from the world of need — from the world of business — to engage in reflection. “Devoted to discussion and thought unfolding under its own internal demands,” a college cannot with integrity offer “training for the sort of life that has no place for such thought.” Business schooling is “a scholé of the negation of scholé.”

Business is an activity that we engage in to achieve other goods. A college graduate must be educated to think about those goods thoughtfully and critically, especially because markets are cultural institutions, shaped by what we value. But the very existence of the business major teaches students that the end of business is business. In reality, each good or service has its own distinct purposes, practices, and virtues.

Read the rest here.  Someone had to say it.

Do Business Schools Belong in Universities?


The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

For Miami (OH) University historian professor Steven Conn, the answer is clearly “no.”

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Conn makes his case.

Here is a taste:

It is hard to shake the conclusion that business schools have largely failed — even on their own terms, much less on other, broader social ones. For all their bold talk about training tomorrow’s business leaders, as institutions they have largely been followers. “In reviewing the course of American business education over the past fifty years,” wrote one observer, “one is struck by its almost fad-like quality.” That was in 1957. Despite their repeated emphasis on innovation and “outside the box thinking” business schools exhibit a remarkable conformity and sameness. Don’t take my word for it. That Porter and McKibbin study from 1988 found “a distressing tendency for schools to avoid the risk of being different … A ‘cookie cutter mentality’ does not seem to be too strong a term to describe the situation we encountered in a number of schools.” Finally, while honest people can disagree over whether American business is better off for having business schools, they have provided scant evidence that they have done much to transform business into something more noble than mere money-making. Indeed, by the late 20th century, they stopped pretending they could.

Read the entire piece here.


Hire a Humanities Major

StrossCheck out Scott Jaschik’s interview at Inside Higher Ed with Randall Stross, author of A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees.  Stross has a Ph.D in Chinese history from Stanford and currently teaches business at San Jose State University.  (Yes, you read that last sentence correctly).

Here is a taste of the interview:

Q: Many admissions leaders at liberal arts colleges report increasing difficulty in making the case for the liberal arts. What is your advice for them?

A: If it seems difficult to make the case now, imagine how difficult it would have been in the depths of the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate was 16 percent and headed for 24 percent and market demand for liberal arts majors had evaporated. The talk in the air was of the need for more vocational education. Yet William Tolley, in his inaugural address as the president of Allegheny College, did not falter. He made the case for a broad liberal education in 1931 whose contemporary relevance should hearten all of us who advocate for liberal education. “Specialists are needed in all vocations, but only as long as their vocations last, and vocations have a tendency now to disappear almost overnight,” he observed. He reasoned that in an ever-changing world the broad knowledge covered at a liberal arts college is “the finest vocational training any school can offer.” The argument is no less powerful today. But to make it seem well grounded, admissions leaders should have at their fingertips stories to share of graduates who left their schools with liberal arts majors and have gone on to interesting professional careers.

Q: Politicians seem to love to bash the liberal arts, asking why various majors are needed. How should educators respond?

A: Many politicians — perhaps most politicians — view the labor marketplace in terms defined entirely by “skills”: employers need workers equipped with specific skills; students either arrive with those skills or lack those skills. This is new, historically speaking. In a bygone era, 60 years ago, many large corporations hired college graduates in bulk, paying little heed to their majors, and spent the first years training the new hires themselves. So the defense of the liberal arts today must be delivered using the vocabulary of “skills.” Fortunately, conscientious students in the liberal arts can demonstrate great skill in many things: learning quickly, reading deeply, melding information from diverse sources smoothly, collaborating with others effectively, reasoning logically, writing clearly. I will resist the temptation to point out the apparent absence of these skills among those who are doing the bashing.

Read the rest here.

The Problem With Majoring in Business


To be fair, Chris Gehrz‘s post at The Pietist Schoolman is actually titled “The (Potential) Problems with Majoring in Business.”  Gerhz responds to a Chronicle of Higher Education list of the most popular majors at the nation’s 40 largest public universities.  As you might expect, Business is the most popular major at 23 of these universities and is second or third most popular at seven more.


Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post:

…in the abstract, I don’t think that it’s a bad idea to major in business.

But I find it enormously troubling that that field is so disproportionately popular in American higher education.

First, a problem that should be familiar to any business major: at a certain point, the supply of any good or service will exceed the demand for it.

Yes, too many marketing majors can saturate the market.

At which point there’s very little that even gifted marketers can do to make attractive their college-trained, debt-laden product to employers who either need fewer employees with that training — or have recognized that the market has been overlooking other sources of the same labor (e.g., history majors who are trained to pick up field-specific skills as they go, but already have the scarce writing, research, critical thinking, interpersonal, and intercultural skills that employers claim to value above major).

Look, if you have a passion for marketing or feel a calling to management, that’s great. Business is a wonderful fit for you: you’ll enjoy and thrive in courses that will move you closer to your goals. Let me introduce you to my neighbors here at Bethel!

But that description fits only a tiny minority of 18-year olds. In my fifteen years of talking to those students and their parents, I’ve found that most are trying to make an important decision (college major) with too little information and too much anxiety. Desperate to ensure employment, they pick what seems like the most straightforward path to a job. But because their decision is only one of millions like it, they actually risk making their employment less likely.

Read the entire piece here.

“Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World”


If you haven’t heard it yet, check out Episode 21 of the Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  We talk with Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist and author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World.

Thanks to Hartley’s twitter feed I just found this review of The Fuzzy and the Techie at the website of The Philippine Star.  Here is a taste of Bong Osorio’s piece:

While the parents of college-age children largely prefer degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the technical trades — collectively called STEM — there’s new evidence to suggest that value can still be found in the good old Liberal Arts degree. Hooray for literature, history, humanities and sociology subjects.

Alyse Lorber of Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) media wrote, “The advent of ‘Big Data’ has led businesses into what seems like a new age of reason. We have the technology now to quantify our world in endless rational ways. We see more, we know more and we have the algorithms to reach people with more precision than ever before. Choose the channels; decide on the message and press send. Relevance is guaranteed; success will surely follow. There’s just one flaw in this analysis: human nature.”

Real people don’t behave as rationally or as predictably. We are familial and emotional and the reasons behind the choices we make aren’t so easily measured.

Read the entire review here.

Episode 21: Why We Need More Historians in the Silicon Valley

podcast-icon1The liberal arts vs. STEM. A degree in the humanities vs. a degree in business. The current conversation around higher education consistently pits the study of history, philosophy, or English against more “practical” pursuits like engineering or computer science. But both data and the insights of business leaders tell us that this is a false dichotomy. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss the value of the liberal arts within both the current economic and political climate. They are joined by venture capitalist Scott Hartley (@scottehartley), author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World.

Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business. Study the Humanities


From Business Insider:

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban offered a perhaps bleak prediction on the future of jobs in an interview Friday with Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson at the NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans.

Discussing the swiftly evolving nature of jobs due to automation, he noted that across a broad array of industries, robots will replace human workers.

Prompted by Johnson, he then made a bold proclamation about the types of skills and majors that will dominate in his version of the future labor market.

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation (emphasis ours):

Johnson: So essentially what you’re making the case for is education and job training for grown ups.

Cuban: No, no. I think that won’t matter. What are you going to go back and learn to do?

Johnson: What it takes, right? Whether it’s finance, whether it’s software programming.

Cuban: No finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.

Cuban’s forecast of the skills needed to succeed in the future echoes that of computer science and higher education experts who believe people with “soft skills,” like adaptability and communication, will have the advantage in an automated workforce.

Cuban highlighted English, philosophy, and foreign language majors as just some of the majors that will do well in the future job market.

Watch the entire interview here.

Cuban is reinforcing a narrative I and many other have been pushing for a long time.  We need the humanities more than ever in a constantly changing workplace. (Not to mention their contribution to our democracy).  Colleges and universities with traditional liberal arts programs that do not invest in their humanities-based missions are doing so at their own peril.

Having said that, I am becoming more and more convinced that not every 4-year college or university, even those who give lip-service to the liberal arts and the humanities, will be unable to commit to this kind mission and still keep the doors open.  Colleges in financial difficulties, or those who rely entirely on tuition dollars, or those with small endowments, cannot afford to take the long view in this way.  Instead, they must throw their money into professional programs just to stay alive.

Cuban takes the long view.  Liberal arts and the humanities are the future.  It think college administrators understand this, but there is nothing they can do about it.  Mission is sacrificed to market.  Give the students want they want, not what they, and all of us, need.

Business Majors Need Liberal Arts to Advance in Their Careers

Business liberal arts

Over at The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum (see our interview with him in Episode 3 The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast) explains why business majors need the liberal arts.

Here is a taste:

American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.

That presents a growing challenge to colleges and universities. Students are clamoring for degrees that will help them secure jobs in a shifting economy, but to succeed in the long term, they’ll require an education that allows them to grow, adapt, and contribute as citizens—and to build successful careers. And it’s why many schools are shaking up their curricula to ensure that undergraduate business majors receive something they may not even know they need—a rigorous liberal-arts education.

They’re trying to solve a rapidly growing problem. Almost one in five bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States is a business degree, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Education. And that may actually understate the growth of business education—it doesn’t account for undergraduate minors, nor for the students who major in economics at schools where business degrees aren’t on offer. But a panel of educators moderated by Samuelson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, emphasized the need to ensure that these degrees provide a robust education. (The panel was drawn from participants in the Aspen Undergraduate Business Education Consortium, an initiative that’s promoting the tighter integration of the liberal arts into business curricula.)

There’s good reason for their concern. Put simply, business majors seem to be graduating with some of the technical skills they’ll need to secure jobs, but without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time.

Read the rest here.

Why Historical Thinking Matters

If you still need to be convinced why the study of history is absolutely essential to American democracy, check out Mark Oppenheim‘s interview with Jim Grossman.

Oppenheim runs m/Oppenheim Associates.  He has a 30-year organizational consulting and search track record that includes managing transformation service groups for the Child Welfare Administration of New York City, Ernst & Young, Price Waterhouse, Oppenheim CMP, and the Oracle Corporation.

Grossman is Executive Director of the American Historical Association.

The business world and the world of historical thinking collide.  As they should.

If you want to hear more from Grossman, check out Episode 1 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

The Declining Humanities at Christian Colleges: Some Statistics


As many of you know, last week I argued in a syndicated Religion News Service piece that the humanities were in decline at Christian colleges. I also suggested that this may be a long-term explanation for why evangelical Christian leaders who are surprised that their people are supporting Donald Trump are “reaping what they’ve sown.”

My suggestion that the humanities are in decline came largely from anecdotal evidence, my own experience at Messiah College, and an informal and unscientific survey of Christian college history departments that I took several years ago.

My friend and colleague Chris Gehrz, the chair of the history department at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, decided to see if my anecdotal evidence was actually backed-up by facts. He thus turned to the National Center for Education Statistics for schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

Here is what he concluded at his blog The Pietist Schoolman:

I think there’s enough evidence here to support a modified version of John’s basic claim:

The humanities, never especially strong on evangelical colleges, have been losing ground for at least a decade, nowhere faster than in schools where they once had relative strength.

Next time, I want to ask (briefly) what accounts for this change — and then to offer my own variation on John’s actual argument: that the decline of the humanities speaks to larger problems for Christian colleges and their evangelical constituencies.

I am looking forward to the next post.  In the meantime, check out the entire post at Pietist Schoolman.  If you are concerned about humanities at Christian colleges, this is a must read.

I did not get a chance to spend much time with these statistics, but I did take notice of which schools in the CCCU had the highest percentage of students majoring in traditional humanities fields (English, philosophy, literature). As I argued in this post, a healthy dose of humanities majors on a particular campus might lead to a different kind of campus culture than a campus loaded with students pursuing professional degrees.

Based on Gerhz’s spreadsheet (linked in his post) here are the schools with the highest percentage of students majoring in the humanities in 2014:

  1.  Covenant College–22.5%
  2.  Judson College–20.0%
  3.  Westmont College–16.2%
  4. Gordon College–16.1%
  5. Regent University–16.0%
  6. Wheaton College–14.7%
  7. Whitworth College–14.4%
  8. Anderson College (SC)-12.2%
  9. William Jessup College–11.6%
  10. Erskine College–10.7%

Here are the campuses in which the humanities are declining most rapidly:

  1. North Greenville University
  2. Asbury University
  3. King University
  4. Sterling College
  5. Houghton College
  6. Gordon College
  7. Evangelical University
  8. Trevecca Nazarene University
  9. Olivet Nazarene University
  10. East Texas Baptist University

The student bodies at these schools are made up of about one-third nursing majors:  King University, Mid-America Nazarene University, Roberts Wesleyan, Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Eastern Mennonite University, Indiana Weslyan University

The student bodies at these schools are made up about one-third business majors: King University, Eastern Nazarene University, Bryan College, Montreat College, Trevecca Nazarene University, Belhaven University, Mid-America Nazarene University, Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Palm Beach Atlantic University, Nyack College, Oklahoma Wesleyan, York University, Bluffton College, Cornerstone University, Bluefield College, Colorado Christian University, Simpson University, John Brown University, Judson University, Southern Nazarene University, Indiana Wesleyan University, Faulkner University, LeTourneau University, Warner University.

I encourage you to dig into Gehrz’s stats and make your own observations.

Why Liberal Arts Majors Are Our Best Hope

MuhlenbergThis post at Education Drive comes from John I. Williams Jr., the President of Muhlenberg College, a top-rated liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Here is a taste:

This year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, discussed the top ten skills that will be needed for careers in 2020:

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgment and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

The list is remarkable, both for what it includes and for what it doesn’t; and for the fact that it is as timeless as it is forward-looking. For our purposes, it serves as a useful gauge for the value of the education our students receive at highly-selective liberal arts colleges.  

As I reflect upon the list, I realize graduates of top liberal arts colleges will smile as they read it, reminded that their education focuses on skills that will be valuable across a lifetime. The record of how well liberal arts colleges have helped students achieve their career ambitions is a strong one. For example, alumni of liberal arts colleges are over-represented among leaders of Fortune 500 companies. In 2010, the late Steve Jobs pointed out how valuable a liberal arts education is, even at tech companies. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

Going forward, college graduates may work for nine or more organizations over the course of their careers. They will almost certainly need to engage with co-workers living in countries all over the world. They will manage products and processes invented long after they graduate. For example, current first year students were born into a world without Google. In just 18 years, Google – or, if you like, Alphabet – has grown from a startup to the world’s most-valued company. Now, in just a few years, these same students will emerge from college into a world that promises self-driving cars, autonomous drone-delivered packages and massive databases in which one’s every taste and choice is analyzed in order to maximize profit.  

Yet, for all this techno-wizardry, the critical skills on WEF’s list for careers in 2020 resemble closely those that have defined the leaders who have emerged from top liberal arts colleges for decades. These colleges have structured their academic curricula and residential life programs in ways proven over time to produce graduates who excel in all of these skills. Specifically, regardless of major, liberal arts graduates tend, to an extent greater than graduates of other programs, to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Effective thinking, writing and speaking skills
  • Competency in writing clear and cogent expository prose
  • Basic skills of language acquisition and usage
  • The ability to understand and utilize mathematical and/or logical relationships, to analyze data, to construct and assess arguments and to make sound judgments
  • The technical skills, problem-solving ability, judgment and courage necessary to create new work in the visual, performing and literary arts, together with the knowledge of the theory, history and social context of artistic practice
  • The ability to interpret and evaluate issues of human concern, experience and expression by means of analysis, critical reasoning and historical reflection
  • Understanding of human activity and world views across time, geography and cultures
  • Facility with biological, computational, mathematical and physical theories and paradigms, using quantitative and scientific problem solving skills to investigate natural phenomena
  • Understanding of how modern institutional structures and social, political, economic and cultural practices shape and are shaped by individual choices, group behavior, and public policies, developing an understanding of the operations of power and ideology across social contexts, relationships and practices
  • Understanding of human difference and the intellectual and civic skills required for participation in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world

Read the entire post here.


More Good Stuff on Careers and the History Major

Chris Gehrz, the chair of the History Department at Bethel University in St. Paul and the author of The Pietist Schoolman blog, is doing a lot of good thinking on career paths and destinations for history majors.

His recent post, “Majoring in History, Thriving in Business” tells the story of several Bethel History Department alums who are using their history major in the business world.  Here is a taste:

Enter Brandon Raatikka (’03) and Tim Goddard (’04). A decade out from their History education at Bethel, they’re thriving in the business world:
Tim studied history, biology, and writing at Bethel, worked on a political campaign, wrote a novel, taught science in Brazil, and built from an early interest in web design and blogging into employment with software startups. He’s now vice president of marketing for a group that facilitates mergers between software companies.• Brandon went to law school at the University of Minnesota, wrote for the law review, and parlayed his J.D. into a position as a research analyst for a small company providing due diligence for investments like commercial real estate. He’s now the vice president in charge of risk assessment for that company.
Despite taking such different routes, Tim and Brandon came to some of the same conclusions when asked how a History degree prepared them for careers in business. Both emphasized the skills they’d learned from their undergraduate studies, and that their abilities to think critically, research, and write well very much set them apart in the business world:
(Brandon) …the biggest things I took away from my education at Bethel were how to think more critically about situations where the right “answer” isn’t always apparent, and how to write well (as you get a lot of practice writing in history classes). Apart from certain financial and accounting aspects of it, business is largely a “soft” science. Training in history and other humanities gets one comfortable dealing with ambiguities. It helps you assess the significance of facts and order their importance relative to other facts. Being able to focus on the big picture, while still knowing how the small details relate to that big picture, is a huge advantage in business, and something that studies in history can train one to do. Also, history courses are an important element of a well-rounded, liberal arts education — and especially in the context of a small business, where one inevitably wears many hats, a “generalist” mindset is valuable.

(Tim) …the ability to write well is incredibly valuable across all disciplines, I’ve found. It was certainly true in my history courses, as well as the rest of my Bethel experience and beyond…. Writing skillfully, accurately, and with a touch of flair is an even more significant advantage in the job field now than I think it was a decade ago…. History majors are perhaps a bit more prevalent in the corporate world than you would think. The habits of research, writing and critical thinking that a history degree can build are vital in any field. The ability to critically evaluate sources is particularly valuable…

Great stuff, Chris.  Thanks for sharing these stories from your former students!  Chris gives a nice plug to the work we are doing here at the blog and in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  For more on what you can do with a history major, check out our ongoing series on the subject.

Coca-Cola Executive: Liberal Arts Is Best Preparation for Business Careers

Clyde Tuggle of Coca Cola

Clyde Tuggle is the chief public affairs officer at Coca-Cola.  He majored in German and Economics at Hamilton College and then went on to get an M.Div from Yale Divinity School. Tuggle recently told a group of students at Washington and Lee College that the fields he chose to study provided him with “the perfect education for the business world.”  Here is a taste of an article about his talk from the Washington and Lee website:

“I never had finance or accounting, yet I help run a huge business,” the visiting Woodrow Wilson Fellow said. “I learned communications, research and critical thinking” in liberal arts and religious studies at Hamilton College and Yale, respectively. At Coke, “I blew right by the [business majors].”
Tuggle’s words offer encouragement to a generation of liberal arts college students who might not know in which industry they want to work, after being advised since high school to adopt a laser focus on a career interest.