Top students should study “physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature” so they can become the “professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward,” writes Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, in the Wall Street Journal. Academics are wasted on B students, he argues. B students should study “useful things,” such as entrepreneurship.
An economics major at a small New York college, Adams became Minister of Finance for the campus Coffee House.
The drinking age in those days was 18, and the entire compensation package for the managers of The Coffee House was free beer. That goes a long way toward explaining why the accounting system consisted of seven students trying to remember where all the money went. I thought we could do better. So I proposed to my accounting professor that for three course credits I would build and operate a proper accounting system for the business. And so I did. It was a great experience. Meanwhile, some of my peers were taking courses in art history so they’d be prepared to remember what art looked like just in case anyone asked.
Adams voted to fire a good friend as bartender — he was lousy — but hire him as leader. “That was the year I learned everything I know about management.”
Adams failed in several business careers before he became a wildly successful cartoonist. His advice: Fail forward.
On his blog, he elaborates on his theory of the Education Complexity Shift.
When most people were farmers, schoolwork was harder than real work, Adams writes. School “expanded, stressed, stretched and challenged” students’ minds. Now, the real world is more complex.
Imagine trying to teach a young child how to do the routine adult task of planning the most efficient trip by plane, or getting a mortgage, or investing. How about planning a wedding? How many pieces of software do you use for your job?
Today, life is more complicated than school. That means the best way to expand a student’s mind is by teaching more about the practical complexities of the real world and less about, for example, the history of Europe, or trigonometry.
History and trigonometry are useful for students who plan to become historians or rocket scientists, Adams concedes. For most students, the only benefit will be “generic training of the mind,” which can be done via the real world.
Some of you will argue that learning history is important on a number of levels, including creating a shared culture, understanding other countries, and avoiding the mistakes of the past. I agree. And if the question was teaching history versus teaching nothing, history would be the best choice every time. But if you compare teaching history with, for example, teaching a kid how to compare complicated financial alternatives, I’d always choose the skill that has the most practical value. You get all the benefit of generic mental training plus some real world benefits if any of it is retained.
Adams proposes teaching history lite to make time for more relevant courses.
His vision seems awfully utilitarian, though I have to confess that my husband, a rabid Dilbert fan, spends a lot of time analyzing financial alternatives, planning efficient plane travel and — recently — advising his younger daughter on how to set up a probability-weighted spreadsheet to estimate the likely number of wedding guests.
Not every B student is cut out to be an entrepreneur either, of course. And what about the C students? Most are going to college, if only to take remedial writing and math.
Update: Many business majors aren’t working hard or learning much, according to surveys of engagement and professors at non-elite programs. It’s often a “default major.”
At Babson College in Massachusetts, President Leonard A. Schlesinger believes that “concrete business skills tend to expire in five years or so as technology and organizations change.”
History and philosophy, on the other hand, provide the kind of contextual knowledge and reasoning skills that are indispensable for business students.
While integrating liberal arts, Babson requires groups of first-year Babson students to create small businesses with real money at stake.