Advice & News

January 9, 2023

The Case for Entrepreneurship in the Liberal Arts & Sciences


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Entrepreneurship, depending on how it is taught, makes a good complement to a liberal arts degree. While there are numerous reasons, two of the top ones are creative problem-solving and career preparation. First, let's get a little background on the evolution of entrepreneurship education.

Evolution of Entrepreneurship Education

When entrepreneurship first started to appear as a course offered at colleges and universities in the 1980s and 1990s, the focus was usually on writing business plans and the courses were taught not by tenure track faculty, but by entrepreneurs hired as adjuncts. Over the years/decades, entrepreneurship has developed into a legitimate field of study.

The field of entrepreneurship, especially in the past decade, has undergone tremendous change in how and what is taught. Among the changes, entrepreneurship courses have begun to focus on social responsibility, climate change, impact, the UN SDGs, etc. And the teaching method has evolved from lectures and guest speakers to experiential, project-based learning. Courses (and research) have gone well beyond simply starting a new business (though starting a business is a common experiential learning project). Much of this new direction falls under the heading of "social entrepreneurship." This includes starting organizations that classify as non-(not-for-)profits, benefit corporations (e.g. Ben & Jerry's), mission-driven companies (e.g. Patagonia), or even organizing movements for social change. Programs that have gone in this direction are ones that I argue are well suited to complement a liberal arts degree.

There is and will always be continuing debate on what entrepreneurship is. Here I take the view that what distinguishes entrepreneurship as a field is an entrepreneurial mindset and a focus on taking action. Recent national studies have found significant differences in the mindsets of entrepreneurs vs. non-entrepreneurs. Numerous theories, such as Effectuation (which combines a distinct way of thinking with taking action), put action as a central element of entrepreneurship. It is these two aspects, mindsets and taking action, that bring the most value to liberal arts and science.

Creative Problem-Solving

Creativity is a foundation in both liberal arts and entrepreneurship. While there are many definitions of creativity, they generally involve the generation of ideas. What makes an idea creative is being both novel (unique, original, etc.) and useful (appropriate, valuable, etc.). What makes a liberal arts education so valuable in regard to creativity, is the breadth and depth of knowledge attained. Novelty comes from combining diverse concepts. That is, concepts that are conceptually distant. For example, an idea based on the combination of a concept from marine biology combined with a concept from music theory would likely be more novel than combining concepts from marine biology and biochemistry. Thus, general education requirements provide a foundation for more novel ideas. The usefulness of ideas comes from having a depth of knowledge. In the earlier example, let's say the student was a marine biology major and a music minor. Perhaps she is studying the bleaching of coral reefs and has an "aha" moment in recognizing that something from music theory could offer a solution. The usefulness of that solution would depend on the depth of her knowledge of coral reefs, which is gained through the rigor of a marine biology program. The uniqueness comes from the application of music theory. Where entrepreneurship comes in is in taking action to test and ultimately implement solutions.

Career Preparation

The essence of a liberal arts education, according to Harvard, is to:

"offer a broad intellectual foundation for the tools to think critically, reason analytically and write clearly. These proficiencies will prepare students to navigate the world's most complex issues, and address future innovations with unforeseen challenges. Shaped by ideas encountered and created, these new modes of thinking will prepare students for leading meaningful lives, with conscientious global citizenship, to enhance the greater good."

But to do so, students must find gainful employment. The skills students learn as liberal arts and science majors, such as problem-solving and communication, are skills that are in high demand by employers. "Employers" is not limited to the typical for-profit corporation, but rather includes non-profits, small local businesses, mission-driven companies, and government agencies. All of these are places where graduates can make a difference.

Entrepreneurship complements the skillset students learn in the arts and sciences. In fact, the Human Skills Matrix by MIT includes entrepreneurship as one of the "24 durable skills that workers need." Furthermore, entrepreneurship education enhances the skills learned in the liberal arts. For example, oral and interpersonal communication skills are enhanced through the numerous presentations, pitches, and customer interviews, which are often done in teams. An added benefit of entrepreneurship education is learning the language of business. Whether the job is with a for-profit, non-profit, or community organization, the language of business is common.

The action orientation of entrepreneurship education provides another benefit to job seeking. Courses often require students to create something, whether it is an old-fashioned business plan, a website, a new service, an app, etc., it will be something they can put on their resume or in a portfolio to give them an edge through the hiring process. For example, students in my social entrepreneurship classes have run successful fundraising events, which is an experience that any non-profit would value.

Recommendations

It is common for entrepreneurs to come from liberal arts and science backgrounds rather than business schools. For example, scientists frequently develop solutions to problems. The challenge is often in the implementation. That is why there is a growing effort to add entrepreneurship to, for example, medical universities. The National Science Foundation has a program, I-Corps (Innovation Corps), specifically for this.

So, there is value in extending entrepreneurship beyond business schools. There are several ways to integrate entrepreneurship into the liberal arts and sciences. The list below is organized from very simple to very challenging.

  1. Encourage students majoring in liberal arts and science degrees to take an entrepreneurship course as a general elective.
  2. Encourage students to add a minor in entrepreneurship, if one is offered.
  3. Add entrepreneurship classes, such as social entrepreneurship, as electives to existing degrees, especially interdisciplinary programs. For example, the Ecopreneurship course I created has long been an elective in interdisciplinary environmental and sustainability studies programs.
  4. Add at least one entrepreneurship class as a requirement to existing degrees.
  5. Add an entrepreneurship track or concentration within an existing degree.
  6. Create new interdisciplinary degree programs that combine liberal arts and science with entrepreneurship. This would work well for programs focused on addressing global issues such as the UN SDGs.
  7. Integrate entrepreneurship throughout the curriculum. Babson College is a great example of this.
  8. Get entrepreneurship out of business schools. Several universities have created schools/colleges of entrepreneurship, such as the Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Bradley University.
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