In a world of open access, higher education remains astonishingly, frustratingly closed. Our universities are insurmountable barriers rather than the points of universal entry that they should be. This was the powerful point of a compelling Economist cover story last year, “America’s New Aristocracy.” The essay argues that college in the U.S. has become a class distinction, a marker of privilege, not unlike the way it was traditionally in England.

Nowhere is this more evident these days than in America’s top business schools, where prosperity is promised to all, but the hierarchy of class is perpetuated and routinely reinforced through the selection of students and faculty by conventional means from traditional places, the adherence to a single-minded vocational curriculum, and the exclusivity of insiders who graduate from the closed confines of the classroom to those of the board room.

And yet, in no other discipline are graduates better positioned to create an immediate, tangible change to society. Through socially responsible perspectives, collaborative problem-solving, and practical and continued learning, the air of privilege and the stink of elitism in business education can be extinguished. But to achieve this more egalitarian society, existing models of delivering business education need to be dismantled.

While our students collaborate in a wider, more fluid horizontal world—boundaryless, diverse, and technologized—we remain vertically institutional no matter what we may profess. It may be time to change the way business schools do business.

That’s where a liberal arts approach to education comes in. It has the potential to enact great structural changes in the way young people from all backgrounds learn about and participate in the larger world.

Developed in ninth-century Europe—though some claim it first appeared either earlier or later—the liberal arts curriculum originally had two main areas of instruction: the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). The goal was to cultivate a particular quality of mind, to impart in the student a wider worldview. This is especially relevant to our own world of rapid and constant change, but in medieval Europe, the aim was to preserve things the way they were, to keep everyone in their social order. Thus the liberal arts curriculum was taught exclusively in Latin, the language of the gentry.

It wasn’t really until around a hundred years ago that the liberal arts curriculum began to stop perpetuating privilege and started emphasizing more forward-thinking forms of knowledge. This is the revolution that John Dewey launched with the 20th-century Progressive Education movement. He believed in a “See One, Do One, Teach One” approach to learning, where student apprentices received a hands-on education and then went on to teach future generations with the same approach. This model persists today in medical education, which requires that young doctors train by working alongside their experienced elders. Remarkably, this is a relatively new development in business education, even though it is essentially a vocational area of study.

Dewey re-imagined the liberal arts curriculum as a foundation for the professions, a way of giving us better teachers, engineers, specialists of all kinds. A pure extension of pragmatism, this mode of education celebrated the cash value of ideas: the better an idea, the bigger value it has in the real world. To this end, Dewey wanted his new learning system to produce a great middle class of socially responsible, well-informed citizens with common values. At a moment when everyone talked of the Rise of the American Century, the middle class was to be the foundation of all intelligence and productivity.

A century later, liberal arts education has undergone yet another transformation. In many ways, it’s a good change: today’s liberal arts curricula embrace both the social responsibility of Dewey and the wide worldview of Trivium and Quadrivium. But the downside is that, as Columbia professor Andrew Delbanaco tells us in the 2014 documentary, Ivory Tower, today’s youth are underprepared for the responsibilities of adult life, and college does little to help. The film ultimately suggests that universities have become a playground.

With a liberal arts approach to education increasingly out of reach for business students, it’s time to rethink not only the business school curriculum itself but also the way we teach it—and who does the teaching. Here are three things our institutions can do to re-invigorate liberal arts into business education at this critical moment.

Drop the “one and done” model. Let’s try developing curricula that work like Legos, each individual component a small piece that we can re-combine within the larger system to produce an infinite number of creations. This will provide teachers with new tools and opportunities to open up their pedagogy to respond in real time to the concerns and demands of the outside world. It will also allow for more cross-disciplinary collaboration and experimentation. In promoting this model of perpetual growth, we need to incorporate continuing education—ongoing certifications and opportunities for students, teachers, and professionals to update old expertise—so that learning carries on beyond the classroom.

Flip the classroom. Forget Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). The real innovation in learning is happening at the Khan Academy. Whereas MOOCs—including TED, Coursera, and edX—reproduce tired models of knowledge transmission with talking heads delivering lectures to a questionably captive audience, the Khan Academy represents a radical change in the way we imagine the classroom. In this model, students receive the primary course material to read through and learn before coming to class. This way, during actual class time, the instructor can work with the students in applying the shared concepts to real situations. This flipped-classroom approach is essentially applied liberal arts: the high-mindedness of Trivium and Quadrivium meets the practicality of John Dewey.

Put faculty insiders on the outside and outsiders on the inside. The best teachers have had meaningful experiences related to their field of study out in the real world. We need practitioners in the classroom. Conversely, we need the expertise of teachers and researchers in industry organizations. Let’s cultivate professors who are also professionals and professionals who are also professors. Some people call this kind of Renaissance person the “pracademic” (the practical academic). The idea is that those who create and teach knowledge should also be practitioners of it. Seeking out and nurturing pracademics will better bring together universities and their immediate communities. Through initiatives like Collaborative Open Innovation Networks (COINs), professors can make new connections with unlikely intellectual partners as they move in, across, and outside of the academy.

The liberal arts curriculum is not a fixed set of universal ideas but an ever-changing model of approaching our world’s most important issues as the issues themselves evolve. The more fluid we are with our teaching, the more open-minded and diverse our students will become. It’s an imperative not only for instructors and business school administrators but also for public officials and parents—for all of us. Let’s start by integrating the practical and the academic in business education. The semester is already—indeed, always—under way. Let’s get to work.


Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. Connect with Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff.

This article was originally published on BizEd.

Innovation is about making our world better and new. While there are some regions that are dealing with the speed and complexity of hyper-innovation, there are others that are struggling to integrate innovation in the most fundamental forms: clean water, reliable food sources, basic health care and safety from violence.

Given that most leaders will face a challenging situation where making innovation happen is difficult at best, I thought it might be helpful to interview someone who has lived with the most formidable of problems to see what lessons we can glean from their experience.

Paul Kortenhoven has been a development leader of West African Missions for over thirty years. He has worked through poverty, plagues and civil wars and now advises communities how to thrive in the face of adversity. Paul’s suggestions could apply to any community or organization. The next time you think you find it difficult to make innovation happen, you might want to consider Paul’s advice.

JEFF: Where do you start to make innovation happen in war-torn region where many are living day to day?

PAUL: First, you have to understand that you cannot help people without giving away a part of yourself. It often hurts to help-but the long term results for both the helper and “helpee”are tremendous.

Results for the helper are respect, self-confidence, understanding of who you really are and why you are where you are, happiness

Results for the “helpee” are healing, recognition, chance to improve life, seeing an example of compassion to follow which always “pays it forward” somehow and somewhere and the awareness that you are loved and you are valuable, your life counts.

JEFF: How do you establish a relationship with these communities that allows you to introduce new ideas?

PAUL: Belonging is everything. “I exist because we are!” This is the core value of the African villager. Everyone needs to belong to some unit…a family, peer group, work group in planting season…everyone belongs regardless of their status in the village….from the deaf mute to the village chief. Then, there are no losers. Only winners!

The positives of this widely held belief are overwhelming! So overwhelming that when the civil war started in Sierra Leone in 1991, the Revolutionary United Front or RUF used this value to indoctrinate their kidnapped child soldiers. The human need to belong, to be respected, to be of value was inverted completely. The RUF through force, intimidation and extreme violence demonstrated clearly that the perversion of what is good, noble and even biblical can be turned into pure evil.

Trust is key. In Sierra Leone (and most African poverty riddled countries) you simply die if you do not live in a village or an area in which people trust each other.
In literally every business, every school system, every government department, we need to figure out how to build and or re-build trust among employees and employers, the government and the people they represent, residents and the educational systems, rich and poor. It is possible if you believe it….remember the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams”.

JEFF: So how do we create this Field of Dreams in the many places that need innovation the most?

PAUL: Well, maybe we should start by paying more attention to the rural areas, to the small towns. They are the soul of the state. Learn to listen to people who live and work on farms, orchards, in a small town garage, shopkeepers. The big cities and tech towns are not the center of our universe.

Then, take care of the poor who will “always be with us”. Use the existing welfare system wisely and improve it. People who need welfare really do need it. They are not all free loaders as so many of us think. And the myth of pulling yourself up by the boot straps is a just that…a myth not a fact. I know people for whom it has worked well and are now college graduates and even Ph. D’s. When they needed help, it worked for them.

The worst insult in an African village or society is to be called “tightfisted”. There are proverbs in very West African language about the sorry fate of “tightfisted “people. A good name is worth more than gold in a poor society. It isn’t just in poor societies that people need each other to survive. In the “wealthy” society we have in the US, we all need each other as well. The sooner the leaders of our greatest cities, schools, businesses and economic leaders learn this, the better off we all will be.

Be generous not parsimonious. Think about tapping the really wealthy for the sake of the poor and make it plain that we are doing this because it is the right thing to do.

JEFF: Why aren’t we doing more to make innovation happen in these places now?

PAUL: Simply put, intolerance. One of the most important lessons we learned in our international lives was to be tolerant of other cultures, other world views, other religions. If you do not tolerate other people as they are, other people will never figure out who you are and you will accomplish nothing by working among them. Find some people that you know think differently than you do and get to know them….by listening not by telling them what to do…talk with them and not to them. You will be a better leader better, a better CEO, a better worker and a better person.

We need to be inclusive not exclusive. Learn from the “movers and shakers” but do not worship them. Do not make major decisions based solely on their interest or comments. Remember that most people are not “movers and shakers” but they still need to be heard.

To at least approach some sense of democracy, be inclusive. Exclusive groups serve only themselves and “themselves” just ain’t enough to sustain anything but “themselves”….

JEFF: What is your biggest concern about our own society’s ability to develop meaningful innovations? 

PAUL: Multi-tasking! In less developed countries multi-tasking is a luxury. You have to concentrate on what is necessary for survival. In a recent NYT article, “Think less, Think better” by Moshe Bar made a lot of sense to me.

My father, a straight thinking mechanical engineer, literally took the radio out of our new 1958 Edsel because, as he said, “You cannot concentrate on your driving when are listening to the radio” And my bother in law (a vegetable farmer from Ohio) did not obey his father when told to turn off the radio while transplanting celery into the field from the green house and subsequently planted two whole rows of radishes upside down! Grandpa was not pleased to say the least.
Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist writes that a recent study by one of his Harvard graduate students “suggests that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default mode when are minds are clear”. My father was right in 1958! Doing or thinking about several things simultaneously usually results in none of them being done well.

JEFF: In many ways, your suggestions about innovation are, shall we say, traditional?

PAUL: Their “newness” comes in the recognizing that the “tried and true” values past have been de-valued or discarded by the extreme individualism of our present day culture and the ease of electronic age which allows us and encourages us to be even more self-centered. This enables us to ignore our neighbor and belong only to ourselves. …bad for business, bad for any meaningful accountability for our decisions in whatever field in which we are engaged.

Once we recognize this, innovation can begin in leadership in business, education and government.

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If you’d like to be in touch with Paul Kortenhoven, I welcome you to contact him directly: pkortenhoven@gmail.com.

Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. Connect with Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff.

The article was originally published by The Huffington Post.

If you feel like some people have no problem finding a job-even in the most difficult job markets-you’re not mistaken. These seemingly lucky individuals know something: You don’t get a job by competing in the same game as every other job searcher and applicant-you get it by innovating.

Want to learn how to innovate your way into your next career move? I’ve put together my methods in this infographic: (more…)

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