Business Degrees Need More than Business Courses

June is the month for convocation (graduation) ceremonies at a lot of post-secondary institutions in Canada. And this year, I was delighted that one of the award winners  at my university graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in business, along with a business diploma. This made me happy because my own undergraduate degree from Simon Fraser University is a Bachelor of Business Administration with majors in business and English. Business programs should encourage their students to take more non-business courses, and it’s not just because of my own experience that I say that.

Whenever I describe my qualifications, I’m always careful to specify the two majors I took, especially when I’m introducing myself to students. I love to see the responses. Some are along the lines of “Oh…that’s, uh, interesting” (with the subtext of “what?!?? are you crazy?!?!”) Others are puzzled as why someone would want to torture themselves by taking all the courses for majors in two very different subjects.

My choice of two majors wasn’t by any sort of conscious design. I started my post-secondary studies in business because business was an area I didn’t know a lot about. And, having sort of wandered out of one career and not being quite sure what to do next, I wanted to study something that had a reasonable chance of getting me a job. Think of the movie Wall Street – although I knew this kind of work wasn’t for me, a lot of my classmates wanted to be Gordon Gekko when they grew up, and a business degree was a good way to get a job even if you didn’t plan to be a cutthroat stock trader.

SFU’s business program required students to take two of four lower-level English courses: poetry, prose, drama or fiction. I took the poetry and fiction courses  in my first two semesters – and then took drama and prose as well, even though I didn’t have to, because I enjoyed the first two courses so much.  Then I figured I should get some formal recognition for the extra courses, so I signed up for a minor in English. And then, as I took more courses for the English minor, I got more and more hooked. I very clearly remember going into the English program advisor’s office and telling her, “Um, I think I have to do a major in this”. I knew it meant at least one extra semester of classes, if not more, because the English and business programs didn’t exactly synchronize their timetables. But the best way I can explain it was that I couldn’t imagine not doing an English major. And I never regretted the decision for a minute.

However, it was a very unusual decision. Most of my fellow business students were just doing courses in business. Only one other person in the entire BBA program was doing an additional major or minor in anything other than economics or psychology – and luckily, he was doing a minor in English, so we got to take a lot of classes together and help each other out. When I worked in project groups, it was always hilarious how the other students reacted when they found out what I was taking. The English students were suspicious, like I was a spy for “the Man” or would sneer at anything that didn’t involve making money.  The business students could not understand my choice at all, but were nevertheless grateful that someone in the group could write well enough to make the final project look good.

Combining two things that might not seem to go together results in a different perspective. (credit: own photo)

But what I found to my surprise was that, even though I had no expectation whatsoever that the two subjects would complement each other, they actually had a lot in common. In English courses, you spend a lot of time reading and analyzing texts, trying to figure out what the author is doing and why, looking at how your own experience influences your response to the text, and identifying connections within and across literary styles and eras. In business courses, you do exactly the same thing. You look at data or cases or patterns of behaviour, and try to figure out what is going on, how your previous knowledge or experience might influence what you’re perceiving, and how you’re going to address what you think is happening. Both subjects require you to read and think critically, to communicate clearly and thoughtfully, and to be creative.

Ironically, the skills I acquired from my two majors are the exact skills which employers now complain that business graduates don’t have. Some business schools are trying to broaden their curricula to integrate perspectives from other disciplines. This is commendable, but, sadly, many business students don’t want to take any non-business courses. They (or their parents) think those courses aren’t relevant to their career plans and are a waste of time, money, and effort.

I was extremely fortunate to do my undergraduate degree when tuition was affordable enough for me to take all the courses I needed for both majors. I suspect that many students now take only the courses they need for a single program, because they can’t afford extra courses that incur extra student loan debt or more tuition fees. Nevertheless, I find it profoundly depressing to look at a list of business degree graduates like the one in this convocation guide, and see how few students are taking majors, minors, or concentrations in anything outside business. How much perspective on the world, or what range of skills, is a student getting from such a narrow focus?

The 2008 financial meltdown raised some debate among business schools on the usefulness of what and how they were teaching.  In my view, encouraging business students to take courses in other disciplines – like the award winner at my own university did  – and making such choices financially feasible for students would be a big improvement in the relevance and value of business degrees.

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