Approach academic life with genuine interest: Editorial

Posted by the Editorial Board

As the semester comes to a close, students in the class of 2013 will pick the disciplines that will be their majors. If last year's trend continues, 13 percent, for a total of almost 100 students, will choose to pursue a course of study over the next two years in the most popular department on campus: Management and Business.

Numbers like these cry out for explanations. A disproportionate number of students might express interest in this discipline because the subject is inherently more interesting, relevant or valuable. The Management and Business faculty might be more encouraging, engaging or better qualified. Maybe MB 107, the introductory course, wins students' loyalty to a greater degree than other departments' equivalent courses.

Or Management and Business attracts the largest number of students because, perhaps, the department has become Skidmore's default major, popular among those students who, in the absence of interest in another discipline, have just decided to follow the crowd.

This idea will be familiar to anyone who picked up the April 14 issue of "The New York Times" and saw the article "The Default Major: Skating Through B-School," a ringing condemnation of larger trends in undergraduate institutions' approach to teaching business classes. The article — required reading for any student considering the major — posed the argument that many business departments have become overrun with unmotivated students, who will spend few hours studying thanks to a lack of real interest in the discipline.

Upon reading an article like this, the first response of anyone in our college community is to look to our own department of Management and Business. We question whether this picture of the apathetic business student coasting through dumbed-down coursework is an accurate representation of what has become the most popular and visible department on campus.

But even a first glance will show that when it talks about failed pre-professional preparation, this article isn't talking about schools like Skidmore. Our department sits one floor down from the (nearly as popular) department of English; one building over from classrooms where students are learning psychology, sociology and history; and across campus from biology labs and art studios. Ours is a liberal arts approach to business, the department's professors say.

We think such a department belongs here. Its holistic take on the discipline means that it's largely not the pre-professional department as labeled by its critics (and many of its supporters): with students gaining a basic sense of the many moving parts of a business, rather than an intensive understanding of just one, students aren't leaving as marketing gurus and CPAs. For the most part, business students learn to apply the very disciplines that are quintessentially part of the liberal arts: math becomes finance, sociology becomes marketing, English becomes communication, and so on.

But the department runs into trouble when it expects a liberal arts understanding that, for many of its students, might not exist. If business majors haven't spent time with those other disciplines — if the finance student is weak on math, the marketing student ignorant of sociology, the communication student inexperienced with English — their understanding will be flawed at best, superficial at worst. Discussions turn vapid. Tests just recycle the textbook, without asking for students to demonstrate critical thinking. Even the most engaged students lose focus. That's when classrooms veer dangerously close to the generalizations made by the department's critics, of unquestioning and unthinking eyes on the bottom line.

Many Management and Business students already spend much of their time in non-business classrooms, but to thoroughly avoid the academic pitfalls laid out in "The New York Times," the department needs to mandate an interdisciplinary approach. Planned restructuring of the major, with a rumored emphasis on students' learning in other departments' classrooms, looks like it might do just that. Besides making our business students better at business, such changes would reinvigorate the intellectual curiosity of students who treat Management and Business as that pragmatic default major — the department that they chose because, well, they didn't know what else to do.

Those students will always be there, dragging down classrooms otherwise populated with some of the college's most engaged, enterprising and creative minds. So long as students continue to overlook the rich variety of the almost 40 departments and programs offered by the college, default majors like Management and Business — as well as other similarly popular majors, like English, Psychology and Studio Art — will continue to play host to unmotivated, apathetic students.

By picking these disciplines for a reason besides genuine academic interest, a student does not only himself, but our college, a disservice. He or she just robbed another department of one of its most passionate students.

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