Of Business and Basketweaving

Scrooge, before liberal arts

Scrooge, before liberal arts education.

How’s this for an attention grabber? I think many of today’s business students are woefully, and perhaps willfully, undereducated.

When you study and teach the liberal arts, you never lack for those willing to offer their estimation of your work: “Arts and Crafts.” “Basketweaving.” “You can always join a book club.” “You people, sitting around talking about how wonderful Shakespeare is.” “What are you going to do with THAT?” “It’s just fluff.”

Gallingly, these comments often come from those with little or no experience of a liberal arts education. More gallingly, at least two of the statements above were made to me by academics — in business schools.

In decades and centuries past, those disciplines now seen as the shining examples of university achievement – applied sciences and social sciences – would have been relegated to technical schools or even apprenticeship training. Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, did not attend university to gain his business skills. (And, whatever else you might say about him, Scrooge was a successful businessman.) His career began with an apprenticeship with Mr. Fezziwig. And, as Dickens pointed out, Scrooge suffered from a lack of connection to humanity. His dream-vision (an old narrative form, as English majors know) comprises an education in humanity, a reflection on history, and a study of human social interaction. He must be taught the value of “fluff.”

Scrooge, after liberal arts education.

Scrooge, after liberal arts education.

When the applied sciences, including business, were admitted into the university setting, most universities required students to undertake a study of the liberal arts in addition to studies of applied skills. We still see the remnants of this system: we require doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and teachers, for example, to have some exposure to the liberal arts before proceeding to professional colleges. And, in the past, business students, too, were expected to study history, literature, politics, and philosophy alongside marketing and accounting.

However, these days, business schools admit students straight out of high school. Any expectation of a liberal arts education has been relegated to undefined “elective classes,” mostly left to the student’s discretion. Once in university, many business students seldom stray beyond the perceived walls of their area of study. They are more likely to pursue electives that lie close to home, like economics, or that will guarantee high marks, rather than building knowledge of the world now and in the past.

As a result, few of these students – and even some of the faculty – have any real acquaintance with what we would call a liberal arts education. Indeed, when many faculty discuss the liberal arts, it’s often in terms of service provision. I’ve been told that English, for example, should be about teaching grammar, not a study of literature (“Join a book club.”). Worse, they feel quite comfortable dismissing the value of a liberal arts education, even to the point of suggesting that we need no longer engage with studies that do not directly reflect life as we currently perceive it (“It’s fluff.”).

Having been granted a place in the academy, why do these scholars-come-lately presume to dictate who may now have a place in the academy?

Where, in the “real world,” does the last person invited to the party get to vet the guest list?

To paraphrase Margaret Atwood (for the first and last time), it wouldn’t be such a problem if business students, graduates, professionals, and academics weren’t as powerful as they are. But they are, so it is.

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Googling towards Bethlehem

“What do you think happened to that plane?” a friend asked me. I knew she was talking about the missing Malaysian airliner that has dominated the news.

“It crashed.” I felt I was stating the obvious.

“No, I mean, what do you think really happened to it?”

This friend is otherwise entirely sensible and intelligent. Her question – with its sense that something beyond the obvious must have happened to that plane – made me think. After all, hadn’t all the networks asked the same question repeatedly?

And what answers did they offer? Miniature black holes, Islamo-extremo-terrorism, hijacking, stairways to heaven, alien abduction, all presented with impressive gravitas.

Clearly something out of the ordinary happened: planes don’t fall out of the sky every day. (Well, not quite every day.) Why did the discussion get so crazy so quickly?

We all know the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” How about this update: “A little information is a dangerous thing.”

No, wait. If anything, we’ve got access to more information than ever before. But, what does that mean for us?

In the past few years, I’ve tried to explain to my students the difference between information (data connected by context) and knowledge (information analyzed, criticized, interpreted, internalized, applied, and otherwise subjected to intellectual forces). They don’t get it. In some cases, they explicitly refuse to get it. “Why should I learn that?” more than one has said. “I’ll just Google it if I need to know it.”

What can we learn from Google? I just asked Google some questions and learned some interesting information:

So, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Information, however, is different from knowledge.

Information demands we do something with it – examine it, analyze it, even reject it. Otherwise, we risk being overwhelmed by it.

And these days, we’re drowning in a sea of information. In the absence of knowledge, a lot of unexamined information is even more dangerous than ignorance.

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