Business School Rx: Humanities

We live in a brave new world where business schools face the challenge of preparing not just good financial engineers or accomplished management technicians, but also global citizens. Thus education delivered at business schools can and should be a personal transformation process. And this implies a constant state of learning.

Against this view, some people might argue that it is impossible to learn or develop basic traits of character beyond a certain age. This tenet is based on outmoded Freudian theories in which personality features are acquired and fixed prior to adolescence (more extreme versions claim they are formed in the womb). But a growing number of contemporary education theorists and psychologists accept that many skills and traits can be learned and developed in maturity if the necessary attitudes are cultivated. In fact, business schools' success is based on the idea that education and training can transform the lives of managers throughout their careers—and that this in turn will positively affect the performance of their companies and society at large.

Two of the most promising avenues for deepening the transformational nature of management education are the systematic training of management students in what might be called the "managerial virtues" and integrating the study of management and the humanities.

Regarding the first, developing virtues—understood as habits or routines that form our character—has been a core aspect of teaching in all societies throughout the ages. Virtues are operative good habits that are not innate but achieved through constant exercise. It is never too late to start practicing or perfecting these good habits, and they can make management education a transforming experience.

Marble Liberation

How can business schools help their students cultivate virtues and competencies? To answer this question, the best analogy, frequently used, is taken from the great artist Michelangelo, who believed that the job of the sculptor is to free the forms already inside the stone. The job of teachers can be interpreted in a similar way: i.e. freeing students' potential. Indeed, business schools provide a valuable platform for the cultivation of a series of virtues such as hard work, endurance, self-organization, sociability, curiosity, modesty, and common sense—all basics for good management.

To help students develop their managerial virtues, business schools should combine general teaching methods such as classes, with personalized attention to students through individual learning solutions: one-to-one sessions, tutorials, coaching, and mentorship. This personalized approach identifies weaknesses and builds strengths in students by targeting the professional development of each person and drawing out their virtues where necessary. This focused attention requires classes that are smaller than the current standard of more than 80 students; ideally, classes should include no more than around 50. Interestingly, high-quality "blended" programs that combine face-to-face contact with on-line methodologies have an enormous potential to foster student's skills and competencies. They make a truly diverse class possible and require students to interact in a variety of mediums.

My second proposal is to integrate the study of humanities into business programs. The structure of contemporary MBA programs has turned specialized, extremely so in some cases, falling into what is commonly known as the silo syndrome. The symptoms of this illness: academics working only with same-subject colleagues, and students gaining only a narrow perspective on knowledge. Making humanities a core part of all degrees will cement the learning experience and develop open-minded and well-rounded graduates.

Art That Promotes Reflection

This spirit inspires our new executive MBA program launched jointly by IE Business School and Brown University. We believe that by teaching modern art, for example, we nurture such skills as perception and observation, typical of artists and architects, which may help the traditionally action-oriented manager be more reflective while assessing risk. Courses on foreign cultures may help them lead cross-cultural teams better in global companies. Modules on critical thinking may be of use to question unethical decisions imposed by their bosses in the future. Indeed, it is time to bring all the benefits of classical education to business schools.

Likewise, given that management is all-pervasive and affects all social and professional activities, I suggest that it be taught across all degrees at universities. Behind every good professional practice is good management, although we notice this only when things don't work. Doctors should be able to run hospitals efficiently and provide patients with quality care. Architects should be capable of completing projects on time and under budget. Indeed, good and sustainable management should permeate all new university offerings if we want our graduates, regardless of their degrees, to improve the world.

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