Impractical and Practical Educations

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The online version of The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article last week, questioning the value of undergraduate business majors. It turns out that 20% of all undergrads in the U.S. major in business, more than double the next most popular major ("social sciences and history," which is actually about a dozen majors combined into one category). I knew that the number was high, but this was a truly surprising number.

As a former economics professor, I have some interest in this subject. As a current law professor, I also see some parallels between this discussion and the current call for teaching more "practical skills" to law students. At both the undergraduate level and in law school, I continue to think that "learning to think and communicate effectively" is what we should be teaching. Here, I will discuss a few points from the WSJ article, and then I will compare and contrast these points in the undergraduate and law school contexts.

My interest in the controversy over business majors actually dates to my days as an undergraduate, long before I knew that I would end up being a professor. I attended a liberal arts college (Vassar) that did not offer business majors. I majored in economics, because I was interested in economics. (What a concept: Majoring in something because you actually are interested in it!) I quickly discovered, however, that many of my fellow econ majors would have preferred to major in business, if only Vassar had offered a good, "practical" degree.

The WSJ piece makes the case against undergraduate business majors, and it does so from the standpoint of employers. This would have utterly flummoxed my undergraduate classmates, who were sure that their future employers would never take seriously mere economics majors (or certainly music or history or English majors). The WSJ notes: "The biggest complaint [from, among others, corporate recruiters]: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don't develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses."

If firms are not looking for students who have already learned how to, say, read a corporate earnings statement, then what are they looking for? " 'Firms are looking for talent. They're not looking for content knowledge, per se,' says Scott Rostan, founder of Training the Street Inc., which provides financial training courses for new hires at a number of investment banks. 'They're not hiring someone just because they took an M&A class.' "

Seems like a pretty strong case for students -- even those whose parents are pressuring them to maximize their employment prospects -- to stop majoring in business. In any case, universities are now apparently responding, including my current employer. A recent conference here at GW was devoted to changing business majors to require more liberal arts education.

I should note that, from the standpoint of people like me (both when I was a student, and when I was an economics professor), the purely self-interested response is to allow universities to continue to offer business majors, without any liberal arts requirements. My undergrad classes were much less interesting than they would have been, had there not been so many uninterested wannabe business majors taking up space. Similarly, when I was a visiting professor at Barnard College in 1997, I taught a very large "Money and Banking" class that was mostly populated with Columbia College students who saw themselves as pre-Wall Street majors. They were not at all interested in the actual subject matter of a Money and Banking class, as taught in economics departments. I was teaching them about monetary theory, and how financial institutions affected the overall economy. The business-obsessed students wanted to know how banks financed mergers and hedged risks.

The point of an education, however, is not to indulge what students think they ought to be learning in a class. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, students are not "customers," and universities are not their servants. It is good that GW and other schools with business majors have decided to force their business students to become more broadly educated, requiring them to learn to think about the world in different ways. Happily, moreover, this is a case in which good pedagogy also happens to serve the career interests of students.

What about the analogy to law school? The obvious difference is that law students have already earned their college degrees, where they are supposed to have been broadly educated (leaving aside those with degrees from non-liberal arts colleges -- which significantly complicates things). Moreover, law students are here to become trained as lawyers. Should these differences mean that there is simply nothing to be learned by law schools from the re-thinking of the undergraduate business degree?

I think that law schools ignore these issues at their peril. Moreover, I fear that all of the current trends affecting law schools are pushing us in exactly the wrong direction. As I wrote on Dorf on Law last Fall (here and here), it is a mistake to think that law school should be a place where people pay tuition in order to learn where to file legal documents, or how to track down and fill out the right forms. Yet much of the push in legal education lately (and, even more, from critics outside of the legal academy) has been designed to force law schools to be "practical" in ways that suggest that law schools' primary task is to teach students how to perform specific legal tasks, rather than to prepare them to be capable of dealing with a changing legal landscape.

I am a big fan of legal clinics, and I am very glad that most law schools (including mine) offer excellent opportunities for externships and internships, skills courses, and so on. Even so, every time I speak with an established lawyer who hires young lawyers, what I hear is NOT that the students do not know how to draft a commercial contract, or even that they took too many "Law and ..." courses. Instead, the universal complaint about law schools always boils down to two issues: (1) Too many law students do not know how to think critically and creatively, extending what they know and applying it to new issues and questions, and (2) Too many law students are poor writers.

Both of those problems should be remedied across the law school curriculum. We can teach students to be better writers in almost all of their classes, both traditional and skills-based. The same is true for teaching students to think critically and creatively. We are, of course, exposing students to a highly developed body of knowledge, including brief tastes of substantive areas of the law. What we are trying to accomplish, I think, is to equip our students to be flexible and agile in their thinking. That goal simply cannot be measured against some notion of "teaching practical skills."

There is always the temptation to give students a set of skills that are highly specific, but that do not equip students to change, when change is needed. What has been traditionally thought of as a liberal-arts education has been adapted to the modern law school, preserving the professional training that we provide, but arming our students with the best weapon that money cannot buy: The ability to adapt and thrive. Moving away from the liberal arts conception of education will ultimately harm our students.