Thursday, April 14, 2011

Business Education

As a businessman (of sorts) who never even took an economics course in college, let alone one on management or accounting, I have spent some time thinking about the weak connection between what I did in school and what I do for a living. Even the archaeology I studied was largely theoretical or focused on Europe and the Middle East, only tangentially related to the archaeology I do now. I might, I suppose, be taken for a model of how to make use of a liberal education, since I have quite successfully learned things like soil science and budgeting as I have gone along, and have made good use of academic skills like writing and defining research problems. But I understand why people who are going to spend their lives in business might want to learn something about it in school.

This is on my mind because David Glenn has a long article in the Times about the problems with business education. Any academic could have told Glenn about the problems he points to: the business major draws the least motivated students, who do the least work in school and seem to learn the least; the heavy emphasis on group assignments allows accomplished slackers to sponge off the work of others; there is no consensus about what business students should learn, so professors sometimes have no clear idea of what they should be teaching. Business majors do the worst of all students on the GMAT, taken by those entering MBA programs, and nobody is at all surprised by this.

What is business, anyway? Other than accounting, which is complicated and has wide application, I can't think of many generalized sorts of business knowledge. Most of what I need to know for my job is highly specialized, from Federal regulations to nineteenth-century pottery to the personal foibles of certain key bureaucrats. No doubt people in other fields have to learn equally arcane sets of facts. Other than a few of the largest professions -- banking, retail, maybe real estate -- there can't be much demand for courses in these things at the university level, nor any body of material from which to teach. Anyway, people could always learn that stuff later, like I did.

Pick up any book on how to succeed in business and you find that the author is not imparting knowledge, but coaching people in the right personal habits. (Viz., The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or The One-Minute Manager.) Yes, being able to work in groups is important in business, but can you really teach people how to get along with each other? Managers need to be able to motivate their employees, but is there a guidebook on how to do that?

In response, many business programs are putting the emphasis on practical experience, requiring teams of students to launch actual businesses. This strikes me as the right way to impart business skills. Otherwise, universities should focus on training minds, and teach people things that are hard to learn rather than facts about business that are likely to be out of date in a decade anyway.

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