A Bit More Liberal

Michael Metzger

A graduate of a Christian college posted this on Facebook: His education “didn’t prepare one for business in the real world.” Colleagues treat him like a “sweet puppy.” But grads from recognized b-schools are also unprepared. They stumble over purpose. Both traditions would benefit from becoming a bit more liberal.

The comment on being unprepared was posted by a 2009 business graduate of Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school in Santa Barbara, California. I like Westmont and so does he. But he says “those lucky to find a job with local alumni are relatively sheltered. Business operates by completely different rules in Chicago, LA, New York, Beijing, London, or Bogota.”

Westmont teaches you the ideal way the business world SHOULD be and how to be a good Christian businessman. It doesn’t teach you how to negotiate or what to do when a boss or colleague is sabotaging you, or an older employee is undermining you.

Christian education tends to spend too little time on business as it is and too much on the way it ought to be. Grads get a Pollyannaish view of work. This man feels it when colleagues, learning he graduated from a Christian school, snicker, “Ohhh that’s nice… and smile at you like you are a sweet puppy. Not a look with respect for academic rigor that my colleagues from Ivy League schools get.”

The picture’s not any better at well-known business schools. There, b-school grads tend to be too pragmatic. They don’t learn about business as it ought to be but rather focus on the way it is. Frederick Bird and James Waters coined a phrase for this—“moral muteness.”1 Business leaders fear jeopardizing their career if they discuss work “as it ought to be.” The reigning paradigm is judge not lest you be judged to be judgmental. Conversations are limited to what’s “practical” and “good for the organization.”

In both cases, a more liberal education would help. Liberal means broad or generous. The broadest view of business is found in our behavioral baseline—ought-is-can-will. Regardless of race, creed, gender, or color, we imagine work as it ought to be, recognize what it is, consider what can be done to make it better, and hope things will improve. Christian schools are weak on “is.” If they expanded more into the realm of “is,” becoming a bit more liberal, their graduates might be taken more seriously. I recommend running innovation labs—messy, hands-on, problem-solving environments—where students learn by doing; not by lecture.

On the other side of the coin, Ivy League b-schools schools are weak on “ought.” If they expanded more into the realm of “ought,” becoming a bit more liberal, their students might take religion a bit more seriously. I recommend including thoughtful works by Christians on business, including “Business by the Book” by Michael Novak.

Max De Pree wrote that the development of people—their values, growth, and development—was historically called a liberal art. Liberal because it draws on the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is rooted in the humanities, including psychology, philosophy, sociology, economics, history, the physical sciences, and religion. Christian liberal arts schools impart the humanities but seem weak on the tough stuff. The Ivies impart tools but not the transcendent. A wider—more liberal—education on both sides would be beneficial.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Frederick B. Bird and James A. Waters, “The Moral Muteness of Managers,” California Management Review, no. 1 (Fall 1989): 73-88.

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5 thoughts on “A Bit More Liberal”

  1. It is quite common for recent undergraduates from good liberal arts colleges to report that their education did not adequately prepare them for the “real world” of the marketplace. A natural period of acquiring work-specific skills, maturity and savvy is required, as they shift from the academic milieu to the rough-and-tumble of the world.

    To compare this fairly normal adjustment by a Westmont College alum to the focus of “Ivy League b-schools” is unfair from the start. “B-schools” are largely MBA programs. Only one of the elite eight Ivy League schools (UPenn) offers an undergraduate business major.

    MBA programs are relentlessly practical in their focus, compared to an intentionally broad, undergraduate liberal arts education. Just as medical schools and law school programs are relentlessly practical in their domains, given their students’ needs for preparation and focus.

    You rarely hear a doctor complain that his or her liberal arts college degree did not prepare them to make nuanced medical decisions or how to deal with managing their office staff or to navigate hospital politics. That is not what a liberal arts education purports to do.

    Mike’s point certainly has merit, but I take issue with these bases for it. Juxtaposing the focus or outcome of a bachelors degree from Westmont College to an Ivy League MBA program compares apples to oranges. Both programs might do more with their students, but the purpose for their educational missions are very different in kind.

  2. P.S. Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), recently posted ruminations on the purposes of a college education. (http://www.nas.org/articles/is_get_a_job_the_purpose_of_college ) In it, Wood notes four classic — albeit often conflicting — goals:

    “Education is and always has been about both learning for learning’s sake and practical training — and two other things as well. Higher education, at least since the time of Plato, has always had four basic purposes that tug in different directions:
    • the pursuit of truth for its own sake (“intellectual curiosity”);
    • preparation for practical life (“jobs”);
    • the transmission of culture (“civilization”); and
    • the shaping of good character (“citizenship”).
    Sometimes these can be brought into balance, but usually they jar against each other.”

    Westmont College is hardly unique in struggling to provide everything its graduates might require for their personal lives, wide-ranging careers, and future roles as citizens and followers of Christ. It’s a tall order that becomes highly individual. A liberal arts degree simply lays the foundation, adding a few useful tools to the toolbox.

  3. “Ought-is-can-will” might be summarized in the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the wisdom to accept things I cannot change (is), courage to change the things I can (can and will), and wisdom to know the difference (ought and is).”

  4. Use of the word discernment in place of judgement would also help.Appropriate differentiation of delivery should enable meeting people where they are, as opposed to where they are expected to be. Assessment for learning in addition to assessment for reporting.

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