Business Education: Utility Isn't All That Useful
By John von Heyking, April 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

This New York Times article on recent criticisms of undergraduate business education is illuminating.  In the quest to offer students a vocational business education, in the quest to be entirely useful, business education ends up being not about anything in particular.  Pure utility is entirely useless.

The article cites several studies that show how little business students work for their degrees as compared to other majors.  This is not necessarily a reflection on their personalities.  It is the incentives contained within their educational programs.  Take the ubiquity of group assignments.  Everybody knows the hard workers do most of the work.  Moreover, in dividing up tasks in group assignments, tasks will be taken according to the strengths of each individual.  The student strong in math will do the statistics, the artistic student will prepare the visual layout of the Powerpoint, etc.

Worth noting too is that Ivy League and elite liberal arts institutions do not offer undergraduate business programs.  They recognize employers seek the skills that other majors offer:  communications skills, critical thinking, etc.  The main reason students attending lesser institutions take business is to get connected.  One might think of an undergraduate business program as a finishing school for the middle class.

I’m less inclined to regard liberal education as the bastion of the upper class.  Even so, business education isn’t going anywhere, so let’s give the last word to McGill’s Henry Mintzberg, whom the article quotes as saying: “The object of undergraduate business education is to educate people, not to give them a lot of functional business stuff.”

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Lee Trepanier on Apr 25, 2011 at 7:53 am

I would only add that corporations often look to hire liberal arts majors, since they are more likely to learn the business's training quicker than business majors. Business majors often have to unlearn what they have been taught because each business has their own training methodologies.

Prof. William R. Sandberg Ph.D. on Apr 26, 2011 at 6:42 am

The article and comments are a provocative indictment of business education. Professors von Heyking and Trepanier certainly zero in on the alleged absence of intellectual substance in the business curriculum. I will be interested to read comments by professors whose experience includes teaching in a college of business as well as comments from others.

The CHE/NYT article drew heavily on a survey of students and found pretty damning results regarding hours of studying, etc. The anecdotal evidence was probably worse, as it presented business students who reportedly slide through undemanding programs with little effort and less thought.

Professor von Heyking accurately summarizes the article's criticism of group projects in business courses. I suspect that the same criticisms also apply to group projects in other fields, resting as they do on observable human tendencies to shirk and to specialize. I invite others' thoughts on how to deal with these tendencies and the problems they may cause.

Background: My undergraduate entrepreneurship course consists entirely of consulting projects undertaken by student teams for clients who operate or are launching commercial ventures. Owing to increasing enrollments in recent years, the average team now numbers about six students. I'd prefer to have teams of three or four students but could not manage the 20+ projects that would be necessary to accommodate the course enrollment on that basis.

Dealing with Shirking: I reason that some would-be shirkers will be deterred by monitoring and evaluation that distinguishes individual contribution. Therefore I employ three rounds of peer evaluation within each project team that includes both qualitative and quantitative measures of each member's performance. Students are aware that these evaluations are a significant factor in my derivation of individual course grades from the team's overall project grade. I also rely on my own observation of students' contributions during weekly meetings with each project team.

Possible Benefits of Specialization: Our obligation to our clients leads me to encourage, and not to discourage, specialization within teams. We owe the client the best product we can deliver for the simple reason that the client will rely on our research, analysis, and recommendations in taking important decisions for his company or organization. Involvement in our consulting projects entails at least some opportunity cost, and sometimes some modest financial outlay, for our clients; in return we offer our best effort to deliver a valuable report. I concede that specialization within a team is likely to keep some students from improving on a weak skill, but it's important to bear in mind that the same specialization often brings growth or improvement to a student who already is good at what he does for the project. There must be some advantage to refining skills or deepening knowledge that already had attained fairly good levels--or am I mistaken?

What have other readers done to discourage the tendency to shirk (or free-ride)? Am I mistaken in encouraging specialization for the sake of better serving our clients through our consulting projects? I welcome all readers' thoughts.

Thank you!

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.