“Frame a challenging problem, then get out of the way!”

This is the best piece of advice I’ve ever received from a colleague about engaging senior executives in the classroom.

As business schools continue to grapple with how to adapt curricula to a world marked by the financial crisis, shifts in economic power, and tremendous uncertainty, the emphasis continues to be on content. Schools are busy introducing new ethics courses, revamping finance programmes, and adding modules on global strategy or business in emerging markets. The economic upheaval was a profoundly sobering experience for business schools. Yet we continue to believe that we can and ought to teach our students by identifying what they need to know and then doling it out in digestible bites. I believe we need a different direction – we should frame problems and get out of the way.

Roger Beale cartoon
© Financial Times

That’s what the world’s leading liberal arts colleges do. After going to high school in Germany – a country whose entire education system is predicated on the idea that ministries, universities and schools recognise what a student should know now and in the future – my first classes as a freshman at Yale were profoundly shocking. My professors, the smartest and most knowledgeable people I’d ever met, only cared about one thing: what did we think?

When people hear liberal arts, they – mistakenly – think of content, of literature, history or philosophy. They think of curricula without structure, of students mixing and matching courses from the arts and sciences seemingly without plan or direction. But liberal arts education is something more. It’s a way of looking at the world, a mode of inquiry. It is what Albert Einstein called “the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” And it should be compulsory in business schools.

Fortunately, a debate has begun about the potential contribution of liberal arts to management education. Those equating it with “leadership in literature” or “what listening to music can teach us about management” miss the point. Liberal arts colleges such as Yale, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth or Williams have trained leaders for centuries, not because they anticipate better than anybody else what students need to know, but because their curricula focus on the timeless skills of critical inquiry, independent thinking, intellectual flexibility, connection making, problem solving, judgment and communication. Through this, they prepare students for challenges that may not even be on the horizon yet.

To develop holistic leaders capable of tackling tomorrow’s problems – isn’t this exactly what business schools strive for as well? Yet strangely, a line has been drawn between these two worlds. Most liberal arts colleges refuse to teach business for fear it might “contaminate” the education. Meanwhile, many of these universities have business schools that have deliberately distanced themselves from the liberal arts by fixating on the “practical,” “analytics,” and on “tools.”

For me, the lesson from the first decade of this century is that the two can no longer operate in a vacuum. I’ve realised, while working with senior managers in executive education, that much of what we do as professors is create a liberal arts-like inquiry. Rather than teaching these executives new tools or the latest analytic insights, we endeavour to open the mind, look for different perspectives, make connections, and most importantly, make sense of the world, of organisations and of interpersonal dynamics. What is the value of a human life? What will a world economy led by China look like? Are Islam and democracy compatible? What does it mean if behavioural biases trump rational insight in financial markets? And how can I be an effective leader despite my weaknesses? The answers are not in textbooks, yet those who wish to lead others in an interconnected world cannot escape them. College students in liberal arts programmes ponder these questions. Why not executives?

David Bach is dean of programmes at IE Business School

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