Entrepreneurs who want to dance: the liberal arts approach to business

The liberal arts approach can lead to business being done more thoughtfully, more creatively, and more sustainably, says Jeffrey Nesteruk

May 31, 2017
Dancing business people
Source: iStock

Some of the most creative and innovative forms of business education today are occurring at liberal arts colleges. I realised this, unexpectedly, while leading a collaborative Teagle grant project with Bucknell University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

From Franklin and Marshall to Holy Cross, Mount Holyoke to Washington and Lee, liberal arts colleges are engaging their students’ aspirations for careers in business in novel ways and, in the process, creating new practices for the study of business. Unconstrained by the need for immediate business utility, they are experimenting widely with pedagogic approaches that, paradoxically, may ultimately have a profound impact upon the future of business education.

Here are a few of the courses I’ve encountered:

  • A course collaboration between a literature professor teaching "literature of the Anthropocene" and a business professor teaching "the business of food". Their collaboration uses literary works, including poetry, creative nonfiction, and short stories, to foster a deeper reflection upon and suggest alternative approaches to sustainability challenges in the business world.
  • A dance professor working with an entrepreneurship instructor to create a module on "creativity". The entrepreneur's course (sustainability and innovation) and the dance professor's (compositional improvisation) both seek to develop creativity. The dance course focuses on self-awareness and development. The entrepreneur's class focuses on innovative ways of addressing larger social problems. In constructing a common course model on creativity, they hope to explore the essential connections between personal development and social innovation. 
  • A political theorist and a corporate law attorney interweaving their courses to explore their common interest in the values and dynamics of economic markets. Their two courses – "law, markets, and the corporation" and "law, money, and meaning" – seek to examine the assumptions behind what Michael Sandel has called our move from a "market economy" to a "market society”. As market dynamics enter nontraditional areas, such as education, healthcare and criminal justice, what will that mean for our understandings of business and the larger world it inhabits?

In all these instances – exploring narrative, fostering creativity and examining assumptions – the critical spirit of the liberal arts is front and centre, yet emanates broadly outward offering new perspectives on the practices and possibilities of business. A business major who is, say, exposed to “law, money and meaning” and is thus encouraged to reflect upon the meaning of money anew is already on the way to a kind of mental agility uncommon in the business world.

For me, these curricular innovations are significant for three reasons. First, they contribute to a distinctive conception of business excellence, of what it means to do business well. By doing business well, I mean doing business more thoughtfully, more creatively and more sustainably – all goals I’ve seen enhanced by an education steeped in the liberal arts. These innovations embrace a “nested conception” of business. Under this nested conception, business is never a world unto itself claiming vindication of its actions as “just business”, but rather a socially integrated practice in which doing well is inextricably tied to doing good.

Second, this trend promotes a vital boundary-spanning future for liberal education. A flourishing of the liberal arts in the coming days lies in such disciplines becoming more cross-disciplinary, more collaborative, more pragmatic and more connected to the wider world. Such a boundary-spanning future for liberal education is intimately intertwined with the nested conception of business. Just as the nested conception rejects the notion of business as a segregated activity, divorced from our broader norms and aspirations, so this boundary-spanning vision rejects an imposed isolation of the liberal arts from the wider world, serving mainly to cabin their value. A vibrant future for the liberal arts lies instead in unleashing them, empowering them to infuse and enrich not only our intellectual lives, but also our professional and civic aspirations.

Third, this emerging development enables a vision of personal integrity that holds promise for us all. It’s an integrity that aspires to an integration of ideals and abilities. While abilities without ideals lack a moral compass, ideals without abilities lack the capacity to make a practical difference.

William Sullivan, Thomas Ehrlich, and Anne Colby see our failure to enable the integration of ideals and abilities as a “serious problem” for higher education today. It disables our efforts, leaving higher education “weak in a capacity that matters deeply, the ability to prepare citizens who both care about the world beyond themselves and have the wherewithal, through professional skill, to contribute to it”.

Ultimately, these pedagogic experiments in the study of business at liberal arts colleges aim at connecting more richly students’ ideals and abilities and thus their development as whole persons. Business innovators who understand the power of narratives. Entrepreneurs who are unafraid to dance. Attorneys willing to rethink prevailing trends. Combining liberal learning’s curiosity and caring for the world with the development of pragmatic business skills cultivates in individuals a distinctive character, one capable both of seeing the world anew and acting upon that vision.

If the innovative curricular practices emerging at liberal arts colleges today gain wider acceptance and influence, business majors in the future may attend as much to this distinctive cultivation of character as the conquering of markets. Although not born of immediate business utility, such a vision of personal integrity may be what has the most lasting and meaningful impact upon business education. For one’s inward integrity is what breeds one’s outward responsibility and engagement. As my students might say, only when your “all in” can you go “all out”.

Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor of legal studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

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