Can the Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship Work Together?

By Godwyn, Mary | Academe, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Can the Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship Work Together?


Godwyn, Mary, Academe


Liberal arts courses aren't meeting students' needs, but we can't just turn them into business courses.

Sequestered far from rough-and-tumble, real-world considerations, often viewed as too theoretical to be useful, a liberal arts education is associated with thinking and contemplation rather than praxis. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is almost always situated within the domain of business and involves some type of market exchange, giving it immediate economic significance. Risky, exciting, and fast paced, entrepreneurship represents not only engagement with the outside world, but also the attempt to change the world according to a particular vision. In his 2007 Newsweek college guide, "Twenty-five Hottest Schools," education journalist Jay Matthews describes liberal arts offerings as "intellectual" and entrepreneurship courses as "careerist." Yet even proponents of entrepreneurship education complain of an absence of rigor in much of the available research, and the foundational theory of entrepreneurship remains largely unarticulated, driving doubts about its qualifications as an academic discipline. Critics maintain that entrepreneurship programs do little more than promote profit-driven, commercial enterprise.

Liberal arts and entrepreneurship have a common foundation, but they have erroneously become defined as polar opposites within the academy; thus, the power and effectiveness of each have been undermined. The solution is for those in liberal arts and entrepreneurship programs to work together - without driving each other crazy.

The Business Context

Entrepreneurship programs are growing at an astonishing pace. According to Fortune magazine, three thousand colleges and universities offered some form of entrepreneurship education in 2007. Entrepreneurship courses are the fastest growth area in business and engineering schools; moreover, colleges and universities, in their efforts to attract students and increase the economic utility of undergraduate degrees, have begun introducing entrepreneurship programs in liberal arts schools.

Entrepreneurship professors routinely insist that their discipline is distinct from business management and that entrepreneurs are not merely business owners. Syracuse University entrepreneurship professor Michael Morris writes, "Entrepreneurship is the most empowering, the most democratic, the most freedom-creating phenomenon in the history of the human race." William Scott Green, part of the Kauffman Campuses Initiative promoting the teaching of entrepreneurship, suggests that entrepreneurship can be seen as "an antidote to the alienation that both Marx and Weber saw as the ineluctable trait of capitalist modernity. In Marxist terms, entrepreneurship can be seen as the reverse of alienated labor, when workers do not own what they produce. In some basic sense, the entrepreneur is at one with the enterprise of her or his devising." Green and Morris agree that colleges and universities should make "every student an entrepreneur."

When discussing actual classes and curricula, however, entrepreneurship quickly and inexorably becomes conflated with typical business offerings. For example, at Syracuse, contexts for entrepreneurship include start-up ventures, early-growth firms, family businesses, rapid-growth ventures, corporate entrepreneurship, academic entrepreneurship, and cultural entrepreneurship; the latter two are only vaguely defined. In its integrated Entrepreneurship and Liberal Arts program, Wake Forest University offers undergraduate students an entrepreneurship minor. Even in the program's integrated courses, however, entrepreneurship education continues to be directed toward business objectives. In Teaching the Business of Art, an elective course, Wake Forest students are paired with "successful working artists and skilled professionals to introduce and strengthen the entrepreneurial skills needed to make a living as an artist." In this integrated course, the idea that entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking can be integrated within the study of art itself rather than used merely as a means to market and sell art has not yet been articulated and implemented. …

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