Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Some thoughts about business education

I have both a practical side and an impractical side. My Facebook friends probably see the impractical side of me more, as I post about things like history and languages, and stay away from the more mundane topics of everyday life. (Maybe having Ramen noodles for dinner is interesting to someone, but I never found it that fascinating; and generally speaking, I don't post about impractical things - most people would probably find it boring if I did.)

Nonetheless, I have a strong practical side, which manifested itself in my choice of college majors. I actually majored in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing. It might seem strange that a guy who spends his time learning Ancient Greek would major in business, but it's true - I even got a certificate in Business Economics to boot. (I never took any business classes in high school, although I did take some computers classes that ended up being helpful for my business degree, since that degree required some classes in computer information systems.) Thus, I have some firsthand experience with vocational education in my academic career, and thought I'd write a post about it - thus commenting on the one subject I actually have a degree in, and the educational issues in that field.

First of all, I do not believe that business should be a compulsory subject in the curriculum. (Economics, that's another story - if you want to classify economics as a business subject - and there is good reason to do this - then I'll call this an exception to the rule; but I'll put it into the separate category of civic education for this purposes. More on economics education here.)

This isn't to say that I think business education is unimportant - far from it. (I wouldn't have majored in it, if I didn't think it was important.) But I don't think it should be a compulsory subject for everyone. For one, I don't believe that one needs to know about these things to be considered educated - one can be perfectly educated without knowing about business. For another, I think that the practical benefits business education brings society can be obtained without making it compulsory - there are enough economic incentives to learn about business that we will not experience many shortages of people who know about it. Like any practical subject, the free market rewards those who decide to major in business; so our demand for them is very likely to be met by a willing supply. (We'll never be short of accountants so long as accountants can find jobs and make money; so there's no need to force people to take accounting classes when they hate them. The ones who hate accounting will either find more happiness in something else, or they'll find their happiness in the money they make as accountants. They'll have the freedom to decide which one they prefer, and that will solve the problem very well.)

Nor do I think that a business degree should consist only of business classes. Not that the business classes aren't important - they can be vitally important in getting good jobs, and there is much value in taking them. Nonetheless, I believe I also benefited from general education in other subjects, like English and math - which are required by many business programs in the United States, incidentally. The typical business degree involves algebra and statistics, especially statistics; and the best programs often require calculus and math. (Some areas - like economics and finance - require still more. And yes, economics is a business subject, although it's not exclusively such - more on that here.)

And as far as English goes, business programs often require you to take a class in Business English, Business Communication, or Technical Writing; because employers often complain about employees with poor communication skills. Business programs have responded to this by requiring their graduates to take basic courses in communication skills; and some areas of business - like marketing of all kinds, especially international - require more advanced courses in this. Foreign languages are not unusual for students of international business.

And business majors often benefit from other subjects as well. My business program required a class in ethics, which I satisfied with a philosophy class; as well as a class in critical thinking, which I satisfied with the philosophy department's logic class. And within certain specialties, other classes are useful - marketing research analysts often benefit from courses in psychology, and an advertising person might benefit from courses in photography and graphic design. (Marketing is a diverse field.) Human resources people often learn about industrial psychology, and the list goes on and on. General education is vital to the business major; and while accounting and finance are vitally important, it's a rare thing for someone to graduate in business without significant exposure to other subjects. That's not to say we should relax the requirements for the "hard business" classes; but we should not ignore the value of other classes. They are vitally important to a business education.

There are many vocational programs where a general education is less important. I don't think many trade school students would need these things - an auto mechanic doesn't need college classes in communications, and they don't need to know much about algebra or statistics. But business is an academic subject - more academic than most people realize - and so its students benefit from some basic exposure to other subjects. That's not to say that accounting and finance will go away anytime soon, but that the other disciplines are still relevant; and there is a need to educate people about them before sending them out into the workforce. Thus, I believe that general education should be an integral part of the business degree.

Finally, I think that honest business of all kinds should be respected. I'm sure some liberal parents would be aghast if they learned that their child was majoring in business, as they see business as exploitation and "vulgar" profit-seeking, and think that all real virtue is found in government. I don't want to hammer this point too hard here, but suffice it to say that I think a business career should be respected; and that the private sector should be seen as fulfilling people's needs, with free markets meeting the demand with an actual supply. In some academic circles, business people "don't get no respect," and are not seen as real academics; but I think this does not need to be. (Business people are, after all, accredited professors at public universities.) Business is a respectable choice, and I think we should celebrate people who succeed in business, rather than saying that "someone else" made their success happen (as President Obama once claimed - see the comment below).

So those are a few of my thoughts about business education. I hope people have found it interesting to hear me comment on the one thing I actually have a degree in - instead of virtually everything else, as I've done elsewhere.

Some thoughts about economics education

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