The Humanities Ticket – A Hitchhiker’s Guide for Business Students

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Business is the largest undergraduate major in the US, according to the book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education from the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching. The book also states that the business sector plays a central role in the well-being and prosperity of society. This is a call for the humanities, the discipline that can guide single minded conceptualizations of business graduates that there isn’t such thing as a single answer, argues Ulrike Landfester, Professor and Vice-President at University of St. Gallen.

While other business schools have just begun implementing humanities and social sciences into their curriculum of business education in the last recent years, the University of St. Gallen has been teaching it since its founding in 1898. At the workshop “Humanities and Social Sciences in Management Education: Writing, Researching, and Teaching” that recently took place at Copenhagen Business School, we sat down with Landfester to talk about why and how humanities should be incorporated into business education at the institutional level.

Why we need humanities

In the aftermath of the latest financial crisis, a need for self-examination was present in the business world. Rapid and violent changes in the prosperity of the economy changed the name of the game. Before the crisis, the demand for specialized business graduates with one-answer solutions was high. But after the financial crash of 2008, the demands have changed. Now, we are in need of graduates with a deeper understanding of society, culture and more abstract thinking and problem resolving.

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“There are few universities who, top-down, say that we require each and every student to take contextual studies,” Landfester says. “But there are more and more universities who realize that there is something missing in business education. As the blame for the recent crisis continued to be laid at the door of business schools and business universities, these institutions try to find out whether they did wrong or not – and if they did wrong, why, and how can they remediate it. In this development, I think there are huge dynamics into the direction of integrating the humanities and social sciences into business education.”

To enable students to understand management challenges in a broader context with all its complexities and different aspects, the University of St. Gallen integrates humanities and the social sciences with its business administration and economics curricula.  The aim is both answering a growing demand in society for intellectually versatile graduates and developing the students personally in the spirit of humanistic education.

“What business can learn from the humanities is to endure the ambivalence of business, because business education is usually aimed at trying to teach you how to solve problems with one solution or one answer. Humanities teach you that there is no such thing as one answer, and even that there is no such thing as one question. We try to write a kind of hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy for business students don’t run after that one answer . Ask yourself: What are the notions that have formed that question? What is the framework in which you want that question answered? Then you have what the humanities try to feed into the business education,” explains Landfester.

Three levels of education – 25 percent contextual

With more than 100 years of teaching, University of St. Gallen has made many reforms over the years to meet the ever changing demands of a growing society. The latest and most significant was after the Bologna Process in 1999, the resulting reform designed to ensure comparability in standards and quality of higher education qualifications and to prepare students for their future lives as contributing citizens to society.

“Before Bologna, we had a system where you could choose whether you wanted to do German literature in your finance bachelors or masters for example. Now it is a modular system, where you can choose between 350 different courses. It means that you can follow your own interests and you can go from journalism to including German language literature. It is not a complicated model and you can choose from semester to semester what suits you the best. We found that this would give our students more freedom and more range for their individual interest,” Landfester explains.

The University of St. Gallen offers a three-level and three-pillar model. The levels are the Assessment level, the Bachelor’s level and the Masters level, and cross cutting through them are the three academic pillars of Contact Studies, Independent Studies and Contextual Studies.

HSG Contextual Studies

Contextual studies model used at University of St Gallen; Source:

In the first year, also known as the Assessment Year, all the students must complete the same curriculum to meet the requirements for the Bachelor’s level. At the same time, this is a trial year, where the students can figure out if St. Gallen is the right school for them and vice versa.

“They can assess if they want to study at St. Gallen, and we can assess if they are the right students for us. In this assessment year they are already offered a number of contextual studies courses and during that year we explain to them, or try to explain to them why and what for they might need us.”

At the Bachelor’s level a wide range of courses are available to the students where they can focus on their individual interests. Finally at the Master’s Level the students can choose from thirteen different programs to sharpen their professional academic profile.

Of the three academic pillars the Contact Studies is the most significant.  The main objective is to establish “contact” with the three core subjects of business administration, economics and law. The contact studies make up 50 percent of the coursework, and one third of the lectures are elective courses chosen by the student according to his or her interests. The Independent Studies incorporate a variety of methods and individual lectures and seminars. They form an area of studies within the core subjects, thus allowing the student to dive deeper into the core subjects. Finally, the Contextual Studies contains three subjects – Cultural Awareness, Critical Thinking and Leadership Skills. This pillar is designed to prepare the students for their working life in society. Within these subjects, themes such as working methods, history, philosophy, ethics, psychology, sociology, cultural understandings and foreign languages are taught.

Landfester tells, “Roughly speaking, our experience is as follows: Students come in part of the contextual studies to the University of St. Gallen. During the course of their studies they are unwilling, rebellious and unnerved, that they have to spend so much time on something of which they cannot immediately see the cost of opportunity lying before them. But give them two or three years after they have received their diploma and they come back and say, ‘Now I’ve realized. Today I know what it is good for.’”

To make sure that the students receive the proper amount of humanities and social sciences, 25 percent of the student courses have to be contextual studies. The requirement for the 25 percent also includes foreign languages, which somehow, makes the number of 25% less impressive.

“It was a question of principle for the department for the humanities and social sciences of which I am part. But that decision implied that we would offer courses designed for the business education. That is, I will not have my students recite poems. I am doing courses on who is Europe, what is the cultural context of business models and so on. This is the plan, and it works pretty well I think,” says Landfester.

Room for improvement

While it seems that acknowledging the need for change and implementing it is the first big step towards more balanced business education, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“I see room for improvement on both sides of the chasm. Business students and business faculty have tended for a long time to business as reality, and humanities and social sciences as somewhere between fantasy and the icing on the cake of culture. On the other hand, the humanities and social sciences scholars think themselves to be the stakeholders of beauty and all that is good, and they have a kind of genius arrogance, which needs to be mastered if they don’t want to be marginalized. The humanities and social sciences got under pressure because they could not be bothered to explain their value to society. And I think that will have to change, just as well as the business education has to take into account, that there is a number of competences which they can get from the humanities and social sciences that they themselves do not teach,” Landfester assesses.

The playwrite Bertolt Brecht once said that mixing one’s wines may be a mistake, but old and new wisdom mix admirably.” And true to humanistic form, more and more business universities are starting to develop new ways of building business education with a touch of humanities and social sciences.

Changes are already visible. For instance, the Copenhagen Business School has a range of courses in anthropology, sociology and philosophy applied to business and the University of Essex has courses on creative thinking. But according to Landfester, there is still some ground to cover.

“Globally, it is a process of emergence. Questions are being asked; carefully framed part-projects are still timidly proceeding. Universities are not quite sure that they can get away with it, when really rigidly integrating humanities and social sciences. It is the first state of emergence of what I hope is going to be a change in the institutional attitude towards business education,” Landfester concludes.

Featured image source: kreg.steppe / Flickr under Creative Commons.

This post is produced in partnership with GRASP Magazine and Student Reporter and part of our joint project on Humanities and the Social Sciences in Management Education, specifically covering the Carnegie Roundtable Workshop at Copenhagen Business School. 

Guest writer Camilla Falkenberg from Copenhagen, Denmark is studying Master of Publication with a speciality in religious minorities at the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen. She is a writer for GRASP Magazine.

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