THE annual breast beating about declines in the percentages of college students majoring in the liberal arts has begun. Once again, it is said that liberal arts education is becoming an endangered species on many campuses. Students are simply not majoring in the liberal arts as they used to, which leads many critics to conclude that the students are being deprived of an essential part of their education. A simple numerical analysis of the data would seem to confirm this concern: Majors in literature, history, and foreign languages have fallen from 15 percent of all majors in 1967 to only 6 percent last year. During the same period, the share of majors in business has nearly doubled, from 12 to 23 percent.
The assumption is that majoring in liberal arts is the only way to receive the benefits associated with a ``liberal education'': learning to think, to write, to gain confidence about mastering complex areas of knowledge, to become sensitive and responsible members of the human family at work and in our personal lives. But the mistake here is to focus on majors as if they alone are an indicator of health in higher education.
Most of what comprises liberal education for an undergraduate takes place in the first two or three years of a college program, preceding immersion in a specific field. When we look at these preliminary courses in good management programs, the liberal arts actually have a far stronger role than they did in 1967. At that time, students at many schools could take almost four full years of business courses without taking a single course in history or the humanities.
Today, for an undergraduate business program to be fully accredited, most of the freshman and sophomore study has to be devoted to courses in the arts and sciences, which help to develop breadth of background and skills. Thus, students who wish to major in business sit in exactly the same classes with prospective liberal arts majors.
Once students move into business courses, the goals of liberal education are not forgotten. At least half of the business courses are designed to ensure breadth of understanding of a complex institution, of its role in society, and of challenges in managing it. Underscoring the importance of breadth, some schools, like Babson College, do not require a major beyond a general study of management.
Looking at these trends more closely, one finds that the increase in business majors since 1967 has come about in two ways: Women, who saw almost no opportunities in management 20 years ago, now make up close to half of all undergraduate business enrollments. And since 1967, access to higher education has increased for students who are the first in their families to go to college. Many of these young people choose business or other career-focused majors because they do not have the financial resources to think immediately about graduate school. For these students, especially, the job of a good management faculty is to use career motivation as a way to encourage needed breadth, as well.
But good upper-division business courses continue to challenge students in the traditional liberal arts fashion: on writing, on thinking through complex problems, on making and defending judgments. Many of these courses also struggle with cross-cultural and ethical issues. And the emphasis today is on student involvement -- in case histories, role-playing, computer exercises, and field projects -- rather than ``passive learning'' from listening to lectures.
When one compares, therefore, what liberal arts or business education has to offer, the similarities in approach are far more striking than the supposed differences. For this reason, students who pick career-oriented majors like business are not necessarily abandoning the liberal arts or being denied the benefits we associate with liberal education.
In my view, the time has come for parents, teachers, counselors, employers, and journalists to stop asking young people, ``What are you going to major in?'' In the broad perspective of what college is all about, majors should be of minor concern. Students must be encouraged to see all four years of courses as part of their opportunity in college. Challenge and breadth can be found in career fields, just as rote-learning and narrowness mar some offerings in the liberal arts.
What matters is the extent to which students choose courses and professors in both areas, to expand their horizons and build skills and confidence for lifelong learning. This huge goal is the one that is worthy of our concern and best efforts, whether pursued in the manner of the liberal arts or that of business education.
William R. Dill is president of Babson College, Wellesley, Mass.