Monday, November 5, 2012

A Business Professor Defends History and the Liberal Arts

In case you had not heard, the GAP clothing store got into a bit of trouble over at T-shirt it was selling bearing the phrase "Manifest Destiny."

I am not going to use this space to debate whether or not such a T-shirt is or is not appropriate, although I have my opinions.  Some might say that "Manifest Destiny" represents American individualism, the ambition to move West and settle the continent, and the spirit that made the United States the most powerful nation in the world.  Others will say that it represents a movement that resulted in the destruction of Native Americans.

Amy Lewis, a business management professor at Drury University, sees the GAP "Manifest Destiny" controversy as a lesson in why business students need to take courses in history and the liberal arts.  Here is a taste of her piece at today's Inside Higher Ed:

Although I teach in a business school, my university has a long history and commitment to the liberal arts. We recently had candidates for president of our university on campus, and a common question the candidates were asked was how to articulate the value of the liberal arts. This is a crucial question, as there are clear attacks on the liberal arts through a devaluation of their contribution to society, cuts in research funding, and state governments questioning the appropriateness of distributing scarce budget resources to the liberal arts.

I argue to you, as I did to my students, that the Gap T-shirt is an excellent example of why the liberal arts matter. An American history class might have given a better understanding of the massacres committed under the name of Manifest Destiny. A sociology class might have given an understanding of the implications of the institutionalized oppression of Native Americans in the aftermath of these programs. A philosophy class might have led those involved to pause and consider the ethical implications of profiting from genocide. A strong liberal arts education might have prevented the sale of this offensive T-shirt, and the backlash a company faced.

A well-educated population is crucial for a vibrant economy, and in these times of constrained resources, a liberal arts education might be seen as an unaffordable luxury. I see parents encouraging their children to avoid majors in the liberal arts in favor of "something employable." I see students questioning the value of the liberal arts core curriculum we require. Some resent being "forced" to study a foreign language. Others question how they can justify the expense of a study abroad experience.  Too many feel their time is being “wasted” by taking classes outside of their major. As business faculty, clearly I see great value in my students pursuing an undergraduate business major or an M.B.A., but that does not mean higher education should simply be conceptualized as job training.


Even if we accept an argument that we must prepare all of our students for their future working lives, the broad background provided by a liberal arts education can help our students see the connections from the past, to understand that there are multiple viewpoints or cultural lenses through which to view the world. To critically think -- to stop and realize that "Manifest Destiny" is not just a catchy phrase, but rather a complex issue from our past, loaded with pain and outrage.


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