The Liberal Arts as a Bulwark of Business Education

March 20, 2007

by William Durden
Dickinson College

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The spate of revelations about ethical wrongdoing, greed, financial fabrication, and executive arrogance in corporate America these days has shaken confidence in Wall Street and cost millions of investors significant sums of money. Such crises beg for correctives, and many observers are calling upon higher education to serve as an improving, enlightening force. Well, don't count on salvation any time soon—especially from many colleges and universities with liberal arts at their core.

David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and Jeffrey T. Holman, a graduate student in economics at Berkeley, observed in The American Prospect (October 7, 2002) that efforts to apply business practices to traditional colleges and universities elicit cries from faculty members who contend that such measures will move higher education to "the dark side" or are simply "gauche."

In a similar vein, throughout my 25 years in higher education, I have encountered countless alumni with liberal-arts educations—both from small liberal-arts colleges and from universities that offer liberal-arts courses—who are embarrassed that they hold jobs in the business sector. They express dismay that their former professors in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and even the sciences tell them in no uncertain terms that they have made a "Faustian bargain" and are living a "tarnished" life. With such outright condemnation from their respected mentors, those graduates tell me that it is difficult to think of themselves and their occupations as other than lacking in virtue.

It wasn't always this way in America. For a brief period, at least, some higher-education leaders appreciated fully the benefit to the nation when liberal education and commerce were equally valued and occupied common intellectual space. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who, with John Dickinson, founded Dickinson College and helped establish several other colleges and universities, proposed in his writings a distinctively American form of higher education. Rush wanted institutions to produce citizen-leaders who possessed the comprehensive knowledge and virtue needed to build a just, compassionate, economically sustainable democracy. He promoted a liberal-arts education that would be useful and applicable for all graduates, no matter what their occupations or service—including, unequivocally, business.

For Rush, commerce and manufacturing were defining parts of that democracy to which liberal-arts education provided intellectual capital. In a 1769 letter, he stated emphatically, "There is but one expedient left whereby we can save our sinking country, and that is by encouraging American manufacturers. Unless we do this, we shall be done forever."

In proposing this distinct form of liberal-arts education, which placed a premium on "usefulness," Rush exhibited his outright disdain for the higher-education system he experienced in England. There, higher education was purposefully ornamental and elitist—and reserved for those who were already wealthy and privileged. The notion of applying learning to advance society was simply nonexistent.

Rush was harshest, however, in his criticism of those colonial institutions of higher learning that, he judged, had not yet grasped in mission and curriculum the distinctly American education needed by the "new and peculiar state of our country" —in which, as he noted in a 1795 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, "the business of the principal part of the inhabitants is to obtain the first and most necessary means of subsistence." It was equally regrettable, he said, that "no accommodation has been made in the system of education ... to the new form of government and the many ... objects of knowledge that have been imposed upon us by the American Revolution."

The "accommodation" that Rush sought for undergraduate students called for a useful education that was grounded firmly and progressively in the liberal arts but that also encouraged students to explore emerging branches of knowledge and communicate across subject areas. He argued strongly, for example, for a radical reduction in the teaching of Latin and Greek, which he thought of as dead languages. Instead, he advocated the introduction of modern languages, like German, French, Spanish, and Italian, which he believed would connect students more immediately to the intellectual, political, and commercial activities of the day.

Rush also thought that a redefined liberal-arts education should embrace natural history, geography, divinity, mathematics, logic, moral philosophy (including government and the laws of the nation), grammar and rhetoric, and the natural sciences. He particularly emphasized the importance of studying the then-emerging field of chemistry, which he believed had the capacity to connect seamlessly to other areas of new knowledge and would be of critical importance to the new, fragile nation to "admit of an application to agriculture, manufacturers, commerce, and war."

For American higher education, Rush's legacy—as well as that of several contemporaries, such as his good friend Thomas Jefferson—was to offer to a scrappy nation, born directly out of a revolution, an ultimately practical vision of the liberal arts. That vision gave the new country an education blueprint designed to prepare and commit college graduates to the useful responsibilities of building a democracy— through work in commerce and government as well as in cultural and spiritual institutions.

Regretfully, many colleges that offer a liberal-arts education today deny that legacy vigorously, if unknowingly. Instead, they often pursue a protective "purity" for the liberal arts and ignore, or even belittle, the world of business as too crass for association. Ironically, such institutions promote an elitism more closely aligned with the British tradition—one that America's founders judged inappropriate for the more inclusive and progressive ambitions of our nation.

It is time for the leadership of undergraduate liberal-arts institutions to move beyond arguments for pursuing liberal arts exclusively on the basis of "intrinsic worth" and to embrace instead an imperative derived from the historic compact among the liberal arts, business, and democracy. It is time to educate graduates whose hubris and exaggerated ambition are tempered and balanced by studies that aim to challenge one's understanding of oneself and to prepare one to function intellectually and morally in a complex world.

It is also time for education leaders to affirm publicly that a liberal-arts education is not a mere luxury without practical consequence, but rather encompasses a distinctive preparing of students for positions of corporate leadership. It is time for administrators and faculty members to embrace with pride their graduates who pursue careers in business and finance and to incorporate, both philosophically and structurally, business into the intellectual core of the liberal-arts curriculum.

Rush's emphasis on a broad-based, diverse course of study also rejected any thought of a narrowly focused, vocational education, which has become the model for far too many business majors today. To him, a graduate's success was dependent upon a fundamental study of the liberal arts and the general reasoning and moral skills that they offered. The singular and separate approach that many colleges take to an undergraduate business curriculum represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the distinctively American approach to preparing undergraduate students for business leadership. Pursuit of the liberal arts—which contain those subjects that explore the fullest range of human thought, action, emotion, and character—was expressly intended by Rush and others like him as the most useful preparation for a life of business accomplishment and leadership.

While a liberal-arts education doesn't guarantee integrity or protect the self from its own evils, it does offer students the best chance to grow intellectually and morally. It provides our best opportunity to produce leaders with positive character and intent. A separatist strategy is not the educational corrective to corporate greed. Nor is it the best way for students to form a comprehensive intellectual and moral identity. Rush and Jefferson knew as much centuries ago.

Contemporary leaders of liberal-arts colleges and universities must recommit to that insight in practice. They must advance the agenda of diverse, creative coursework, internships, and field studies—regardless of major—where thoughtful considerations of business theory and application surface, and where questions of intent, equity, leadership, and integrity prevail. And if their institutions offer business or finance courses, those must be complemented with extensive study of the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the arts. A liberal-arts education in America historically intended such diverse pursuit. Such action is not a sign of academic failure or compromise, but rather the fulfillment of a noble and useful purpose through higher learning.

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