Business School

What’s Discovered When Disciplines Learn from Each Other

June 11, 2018  • Business and Society Program

This is a guest blog post from Jeffrey Nesteruk, Franklin & Marshall professor of Legal Studies, whose course is featured in our toolkit for blending business and the liberal arts.

With all the discord around us these days, it’s refreshing as an educator to find a new way of collaborating across our perceived boundaries, especially in an unexpected part of the academy. That’s precisely what’s presented by Aspen’s new offering, Charting a New Course for Next-Generation Business Leaders.

The boundary spanning—or “blending,” as Aspen puts it—is a creative integration of business and the humanities, something present as far back as the inception of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, yet also something dearly needed to be made new again in our contemporary world of commerce.

As a professor whose professional life has included both major business schools and top liberal arts colleges, I can attest that the time is right for considering anew the relationship of business and liberal learning. To cite just one example: a quick scan of unsettling headlines that have accumulated around Uber reveals that business needs to become more deeply reflective. News of a college such as St. Gregory’s University closing dramatizes the urgency of the liberal arts becoming more adeptly engaged. Business seeks legitimacy and the liberal arts seek relevance. Each thus needs the other.

Beyond the confines of our academic disciplines, we all live in the same complicated world.

I have seen how this can happen as my colleagues and I at Franklin & Marshall College have experimented with such boundary-spanning course collaborations as Entrepreneurship and Improvisational Dance, Sustainable Business and Literary Narrative, Marketing and Gender Studies, and Corporate Law and Political Theory. In the Business, Organizations, and Society Department in which I currently teach, we are discovering the value of a bi-directional approach grounded in the belief that each side has a lot to discover about—and even more to learn from —the other. Beyond the confines of our academic disciplines, we all live in the same complicated world and, in confronting the challenges we face, we need to draw upon all insights available to us, regardless of the corner of the academy in which they most prominently reside.

Questions that foster a new way of doing business

This was especially evident to me this past semester when I as a legal scholar collaborated with a political theorist in the teaching of my corporate law senior seminar. Corporate lawyers often speak the language of economics—from profit maximization to transaction costs to markets for shareholder control—a language readily adopted by business students today.

It took my political theorist colleague to expose my seniors to the limits of economic discourse—to that which has a dignity rather than a price, as Immanuel Kant put it. By looking at economic logic from the perspective of political theory, he opened up a new world for my business students with the questions that informed his syllabus: “How do market relations and political relations differ—and interact? How does viewing individuals as rational, self-interested (profit-seeking) agents fit with political notions of citizenship and collective meaning? How does the life of production and trade fit into the political community’s understandings of a good and just life?” To the degree that we are able to make such questions central to the study of business, we are fostering a different way of doing business. It is a way of doing business, too, that increasingly appeals to my students who are asking how to bring their personal values to their professional work.

Scaling transformation across campuses

Bringing such questions to the core of business study need not be restricted to the distinctive environment of a liberal arts college, such as Franklin & Marshall. Funded by a collaborative Teagle Foundation grant with Bucknell University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, we are forging connections across the divides of our three different institutions. We are finding that while institutional identities and cultures vary across our institutions, our differences enrich, rather than detract from, our collective work of bringing liberal arts contents, skills, and pedagogies to the study of business. My colleague at Penn, for instance, has discovered just how much liberal learning already occurs at a leading business school such as Wharton.

This is where Aspen’s work is particularly crucial. It details how faculty in institutions as diverse as Augsburg College and Brown University, Mt. Holyoke College and New York University, Berkeley and Utah State, and University of Miami and Washington and Lee are blending business and humanities.

Important too is Aspen’s focus on the blending rather than bridging of business and the liberal arts. In exposing the humanistic dimensions of business and the pragmatic significance of the liberal arts, it is uncovering what is in significant ways already there, waiting to be more fully recognized and developed.

Ultimately, the value of this latest Aspen initiative lies in how it reminds us as educators that we are educating whole, living persons whose outlooks and aspirations rarely parse out strictly along the lines of academic disciplines. When an art history professor recently told me that he thought business was “the most innovative department” on our campus, I was gratified, of course, but thought more about why our experiment is working. For what works reflects what’s true, but what works also, rarely does so alone.

To download the toolkit with exemplary syllabi like Jeff’s and step-by-step strategies for curricular change, click below:

Colleges and Universities
Charting a New Course for Next Generation Business Leaders
June 4, 2018 • Business and Society Program