Bentley's Liberal (Arts) Bent

The school's dean of Arts & Sciences explains why its secondary Liberal Studies major gives business students a competitive edge

Should you study business or liberal arts? There are cases for both. A B-school degree will prepare you for the concrete aspects of a finance or accounting job. A liberal-arts major will allow you to foster those all-important "soft" skills.

Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., has created a way for undergraduates to study both simultaneously, without having the burden of taking on two complete majors. The Liberal Studies major (LSM) is a secondary degree that business students can earn. It only consists of eight classes. Plus, the classes are ones business students would have taken anyway—including science, humanities, and English. They're just grouped together under a concentration heading and connected to business classes through papers, projects, and other work.

LSM concentrations include Global Perspectives, Media Arts & Society, American Perspectives, and Ethics & Social Responsibility.

Bentley Dean of Arts & Sciences Kate Davy recently spoke to BusinessWeek.com reporter Julie Gordon about the degree, which is in its second year of existence. Here are edited excerpts from their discussion.

Why does Bentley offer LSM?

We were looking to be more than the foundation of a business education. Rather than think about it as, "O.K., there's business over here and liberal arts over here and we're just going to throw a bunch of courses at you," we're asking them to really connect the dots and make connections across disparate disciplines and bodies of knowledge.

Why should students pursue LSM as a second major rather than just take a bunch of liberal-arts classes?

Students typically rush to get through those courses and don't pay a whole lot of attention to them (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/26/06, "Memo to Students: Writing Skills Matter"). What we're saying is that there's added value in paying attention to those courses and instead of just offering them, we're asking the students to write about what they're learning and make connections across their history classes with their science classes, with their business classes, with their English classes.

How are connections made?

They write about it several times, and they have a faculty mentor who reads everything they do [and helps foster class selection]. But the emphasis is really on their learning how to make meaning, how to create significance out of these courses that they typically roll off because they don't see that there's value added here.

If students have this negative attitude toward the liberal arts, why would they choose LSM?

Because we aren't afraid to talk about it in terms of leveraging competitive edge. In the humanities and liberal arts we have a very hard time talking about it in those terms. So instead we sound like schoolmarms shaking our finger at them, saying "This is good for you."

Some business students are extremely focused on getting a job. Would having an LSM major help them "learn for the sake of learning" instead of just thinking about school as a tool to get a job? (See BusinessWeek.com, 10/23/06, "CMU's Strategy for Well-Rounded B-Schoolers.")

This is true of all students. I was in fine arts for 20 years, and the students were exactly like business students. They were focused on music or theater or art or whatever it was they were doing, and they didn't want to have anything to do with this liberal-arts stuff, and they got it out of the way as quickly as possible. And what I pointed out to them is that great art isn't made in a vacuum, and great business isn't made in a vacuum.

Why now?

Everybody does liberal arts and everybody says it's good for you, kind of like castor oil. And what we're saying is, it's not just good for you. It's not just about leading a meaningful life. It's about having a competitive edge in your career.

In the past, businesses were looking for business graduates or liberal-arts graduates. Now they're saying we need both—the depth of a business education, the understanding of finance and accounting and marketing, but we also need all of those things that the liberal-arts students bring to the table.