Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Moderately Intelligent Man of Business

Today, I finally graduated from the University of North Texas College of Business (Department of Management) with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management. After donning the "black robes of a false priesthood," I was officially initiated into the status of UNT alumni by President Rawlins (a fellow Latter-day Saint).[1] The graduation ceremony was mainly for the College of Business, but included the College of Education and College of Information. However, the College of Business outnumbered the others by a significant amount. This makes sense considering that business is the most popular degree plan, accounting for over 20 percent (more than 325,000) of all bachelor's degrees awarded annually in the United States. Sadly, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that

Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: Nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that on a national test of writing and reasoning skills, business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than do students in every other major.

Studies have shown business majors to be less intellectually curious than other majors. This lack of study and curiosity apparently leads to more binge-drinking than their fellow students. Advanced business classes also tend to be larger, eliminating the one-on-one experience with professors. Faculty study expectations are on average lower than that of the students themselves. Furthermore, the overuse of group projects in business curriculum stifles individual writing and research. Author Lynn O'Shaughnessy focuses especially on the writing issue:

Employers have repeatedly emphasized that they want to hire college graduates whose talents include writing. Ah, writing. Not something that biz majors are expected to do very often. After all, how can you require extensive writing in business classes when they can be packed with hundreds of students? Nobody would want to grade all those papers. Obviously this is a problem that business schools need to address. In the meantime, if I was an employer who had to choose between a business major and a philosophy major, I'd pick the grad who could write well, and I know who that would likely be.[2]

Even worse, in my department (management) "no strong consensus has emerged about what students ought to learn or how they ought to learn it." Management has been deemed as "too theoretical and amorphous—a potpourri of psychology, economics, game theory, ethics, and international relations." Critics contest that whatever the intellectual merits are of such a broad spectrum, "the presentation of those diverse topics is superficial and scattered."

Despite my obvious bias toward business, I can see this being a problem. I found organizational behavior worthwhile because of my previous interest in economics, history, philosophy, and so forth. Because of these preexisting interests, I was able to make connections between my personal study and those in the university. I worry that some of my fellow business majors may not benefit from their education in the same manner. Business author Daniel Pink has written extensively on the shift from analytical business thinking ("left-brain") to creative business thinking ("right-brain").[3] While the left-brain material is still necessary, it is not sufficient in today's world. Right-brainers will see much more success as globalization and technology continue to progress. In a recent Telegraph article, he writes,

A few months ago, I was talking to the dean of an American business school. He told me that when alumni return to campus to guest lecture, the current students invariably ask them a version of this question: As you think back on what you learned in B-school, what do you wish you had paid more attention to or had studied more? And invariably the answer is the same. “I’m glad I studied finance and accounting and the quantitative subjects,” the graduates say. “But I wish I had taken all that soft stuff more seriously.” After they left the orderly farm of a case study for the roaring jungle of a real business, it turned out that what seemed superficially soft – organisational behaviour, psychology, people smarts, communication and, yes, empathy – were crucial. Spreadsheets are easy. Spreadsheets never get bored, call in sick, or lose their motivation.

The critiques of business education are valid. However, before the [insert liberal arts degree] majors begin their victory dance or crowing about their more nuanced understanding of the world (yes, you Jane Smiley),[4] it should be pointed out that this decline in business major standards is fairly typical across the board. I often quip that the bachelor degree is the new high school diploma. Given the grade inflation that has taken place over the past several decades, I think it is fair to say that higher education as a whole has suffered. Economist Richard Vedder has found that "some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree." With tuition increasing, Vedder has no problem labeling the push for more college graduates a scam. Vedder explains, "Employers are using education as a screening and signaling device, at a low cost directly to them (although not costless because of the taxes they pay to sustain much of this), but at a high cost to the prospective employees and to society as a whole." Apparently, another type of bubble has popped: higher education.

On top of all of this, the extra study of non-business majors does not invest them with any authoritative knowledge regarding business, finance, or economics. While it may be true that businessmen and economists alike are not as accustomed with philosophy, ethics, or literature as they should be, this does not by default mean that the philosophers opining on the state of the economy have any justification for doing so. Business majors may need to crack open the work of Aristotle, but liberal arts majors would do well to be acquainted with Economics 101. Why? Because one advantage of business education is the focus on practical application, even in management. Theory is important, but whether it actually works is critical. Richard Durand, dean of Kogod School of Business at American University, understands this:

Business students also take courses that require the application of quantitative and research methods to make decisions, in fields ranging from accounting and finance to marketing to information technology...The tools they use are every bit as sophisticated and rigorous as those found in scientific labs. They learn how to apply stringent requirements to measure outcomes, which serve them well in their careers. In addition to coursework and co-curricular activities, our students develop professional skills — like team building, leadership, networking, communication and creative thinking — and are taught the value of ethical behavior and the importance of diversity and cross-cultural management. These skills are critical in the workplace and important in life, and developing them requires the ability to bridge theory and practice.

This is why I find the arrogance of complaints such as the following (found at Ask Mormon Girl) to be both annoying and offensive:

What is it about our culture that glorifies these professions [i.e. business, medicine, law] as more appropriate that [sic] the fabled “life of the mind?” Why must the “bookish” Mormons be isolated and few? Do we have no roles within church leadership? Is our resistance to hierarchy and willingness to deal in contradictions and ambiguities too unstable to be useful/productive? ...At what point should I be concerned that maybe Mormon culture isn’t a living human culture? That maybe we are just as conservative, insular, and intellectually uncurious as I fear?

"The life of the mind" is at its greatest when applied outside of the mind. As economist Thomas Sowell has argued, "Most of us do not think of brain surgeons or engineers as intellectuals, despite the demanding mental training that each goes through, and virtually no one regards even the most brilliant and successful financial wizard as an intellectual. At the core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas, as such - not the personal application of ideas, as engineers apply complex scientific principles to create physical structures or mechanisms."[5] If one wants to know the validity of a principle, see how it plays out in practice.

As I said elsewhere, the combination of the humanities and the sciences (including business) is a "paradigm [that] recognizes religion and science are not necessarily exclusive, reason and emotion actually complete each other, and the objective and subjective always overlap. In other words, it recognizes that humans (along with their biases) are the ones doing the experiments." This paradigm shift can help all majors maximize their educational pursuits, including a moderately intelligent man of business like myself.


1. I'm sure future posts will address what I consider to be Nibley's unfortunate ignorance of both business and economics. As for now, enjoy some of Nate Oman's comments on the matter.

2. She also makes mention of a recent PayScale annual survey that lists business as the 60th best-paying college degree in starting and mid-career salaries. "It fared worse than such supposedly impractical degrees as history, political science and philosophy."

3. See Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006).

4. Economists Steven Horwitz and Art Carden respond to Smiley in this Forbes article.

5. Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 2-3.


  1. Walker,

    Congratulations on your graduation. I look forward to perusing this new blog of yours. Where did you get the name?

    As for the post, well, you make some excellent points. I think it supports the idea of moderation in all things.

    Indeed, God has given sundry gifts to all men, and at least in the Lord's Kingdom, all members fitly framed can be used to glorify God.

    I'm interested to see what you have to say about Nibley, as well. I'm assuming you you've read his works, especially "Approaching Zion"?

  2. Thank you, Stan. See my first post for an explanation of the blog's title.

    As for Nibley, I have read his 'Approaching Zion'. I find it thought-provoking and agree with some of his criticisms. Unfortunately, it is laced with the typical anti-capitalist rhetoric that you find in academia outside the fields of economics, finance, etc.

  3. Walker,

    Almost immediately after posting my comment above, I did, in fact, go back to the beginning of this blog, where I got the explanation you mentioned.

    As for "typical anti-capitalist rhetoric," how do you think the various perspectives ("outside looking in," vs. "inside looking out") influence the rhetoric and opinions of those commenting on business, finance, etc.?

  4. That is a question that requires much more than a mere comment in response. I hope to cover some of that in future posts. Hate to leave you hanging, but it would do little to attempt to sum up such a huge subject here.