Business schools should return to teaching the humanities

MBAs replaced liberal arts with business courses. Demands for humanised corporations require a reversal, say Donald Drakeman and Kendall Hack

September 23, 2023
A statue of Socrates
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For the past 50 years, corporate profitability was deemed business’s only “social responsibility”. But that era, ushered in by an influential essay by Milton Friedman, is over. Today, many students, customers and executives see businesses as just one part of a broader community, and they believe that businesses have important civic and moral responsibilities.

Business schools now need to decide how to prepare future executives to carry out those duties of corporate citizenship. As it turns out, that was exactly what business education was designed to do.

The late 19th century founders of university business schools thought that a humanities-based education was essential for character formation, good citizenship and corporate morality. Hence, classes in government, history, and moral and political philosophy dominated the coursework.

The inaugural first semester curriculum at Wharton, the first business school, consisted of a course in logic, two classes in political science and one each of history, political economy, international law, accounting and banking. The second semester added government and moral philosophy.

These courses followed the university’s regular first two-year programme, which covered rhetoric, literature, history and languages. Throughout the entire four years, only nine classes focused specifically on business subjects.

The Wharton catalogue explained that “nearly all the courses...may fairly lay claim to be called liberal branches par excellence, and such as every...citizen should a preparation for the duties of citizenship”.

Other early business programmes followed suit. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business required three years of the liberal arts for admission, and Harvard Business School insisted on a bachelor’s degree so the “work of the School may rest on a foundation of liberal studies”.

But during the 20th century, MBA programmes replaced the humanities with an ever-expanding list of business courses. Management science muscled out moral philosophy, and data analytics took the place of logic. Except for a business ethics course, the humanities vanished.

The student body also changed dramatically, with most MBA students arriving with business and STEM degrees. MBA students who studied the humanities as undergraduates have become so rare that Wharton (inaccurately) calls them “nontraditional” students.

The humanities can offer even more to today’s business schools than the important work of educating leaders for citizenship. When a recent survey asked executives what potential employees should study, a large majority pointed to the humanities so that students would develop stronger social skills and become better at reasoning and creative thinking. That is, studying the humanities will actually help managers be better at business, even for those graduates who are headed to high-tech companies.

It might seem that the higher the tech, the lower the need to understand anything other than technology and business, but that is not the case. As early adopters of new technological opportunities, businesses will often be pioneering society’s thinking about the deeper questions arising from their use.

The makers of self-driving cars, for instance, need to solve one of the classic problems of modern philosophy, the trolley dilemma. You are standing next to a very large person on a bridge and a trolley below is about to plough into a group of people. You could push the large person off the bridge in front of the trolley to stop it, saving several lives at the expense of just one. Should you?

The programmers of driverless cars need to know the answers to such dilemmas. Should they programme the car, in the event of an unavoidable, serious collision, to protect the people inside or risk sacrificing a passenger if doing so is likely to save the lives of multiple pedestrians?

Meanwhile, business graduates headed into the life sciences also face an issue that has been much debated within the humanities. Who should get limited life-saving resources? A large share of the global healthcare market is committed to a process by which a single government entity decides whether to pay for a new medicine. That calculus is based in part on the fundamental principles of justice and fairness that have been well within the province of the humanities since Aristotle.

It is time for more business schools to join those that have already begun to re-engage with the humanities. Pegram Harrison, senior fellow in entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford, reminds MBA students that “humanities scholars have been thinking about leadership for 3,000 years”. He provides lessons in leadership from musical conductors and the chance to reflect on “the art of being human” with Shakespeare. Meanwhile, the Cambridge Judge Business School offers a philosophy of business class, and one of the Indian Institutes of Management has launched an entire MBA in liberal studies.

To prepare managers for success in today’s business environment, business schools need to give their curricula a back-to-the-future humanities renewal. By reviving their founding commitment to civic education, business schools will help their graduates become more thoughtful and knowledgeable executives who will understand better how to guide their companies toward good corporate citizenship.

Donald Drakeman is a distinguished research professor in the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government at the University of Notre Dame. Kendall Hack is director of solution strategy and marketing at Guild Education.

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Reader's comments (3)

I am not sure that the author's are deeply involved in what many business schools do. For example, the programmes I have taught in over the years have had a multitude of various activities and courses. We had courses in philosophy (long before Judge did it) and literature (I taught a course on the history of management/business through film and had colleagues who did the same with literature). Also, the question is what else is done in the programmes. When I set up an Exec MBA programme we had evening lectures from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre & various journalists and politicians and other thinkers. So to make these general statements belies the fact that many schools and programmes do many interesting things. If there is anything that has driven changes is that many programmes have been shorted and concentrated. For example, in my MBA (from Chicago) the programme was 2 years. When I started teaching MBAs the programmes were 2 years (with some exceptions). However, programmes have moved to concentrated 14-month style programmes and with very limited electives and heavy competition between subjects for airtime. In addition, as more students came from Asia, the students want 'value for money' and view their priorities different from professors. And unlike undergraduates you cannot just say "we know best, and 'if you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding!'" Many students are mature and don't need to be told what their life choices 'should' be. Also, many student's limitations relate to their UG training. If you have 60% of students taking business as an UG and then moving onto an MBA later then the problem is not the MBA programme's to solve. The issue is at the UG level, which is a more formative time to effect people's priorities.
"Let's return to" what, when, where? This is baseless fiction. And self-serving, self-promotion...
Vedanta philosophy as propounded by Swami Vivekananda says that one can reach anywhere from anywhere,i. E linearity or duality theory.that resonates in management literature "connection(<linear>) between two dots.Perhaps in communication theory/discipline,it is connection of dots.