A college education for B students

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.

About Joanne


  1. Naturally, as a history teacher I take exception to the notion that history is less important than other subjects. Tell that to the majority of Fortune 500 company CEOs who are…wait for it…history degree graduates. Or to a number of medical school students who were…wait for it…history degree graduates (in a recent study, more medical school applicants who graduated with a humanities degree were accepted – percentage-wise – than those who graduated with a hard science degree.)

    All that said, I understand where he’s coming from. That’s why as a U.S., world, and art history and geography, economics, and government teacher I try to teach only those things that are actually useful in the real world (that does include connecting them culturally to our past – forming their identity as Americans)

  2. Soapbox0916 says:

    As a peon in local government who works with homeless and near-homeless, I see the value in the education of useful things. The main thing that people need is sustainable cash flow to keep them from being or becoming homeless.

    I actually work with a entrepreneurship program that helps former homeless and near-homeless become entrepreneurs in a loose sense. It is only for a small subset, but many near-homeless are already self-employed cleaning houses, do minor fix-ups of homes, catering food for parties, negotiating to keep a roof over their head, it is a matter of being able to sustain enough cash flow to keep thier heads above water. For various reasons, due to felonies, personality types, etc. some become homeless or near-homeless because they can’t get a job in the regular employment market.

    Some near- homeless are extremely brilliant, but are too smart for their own good, while many near-homeless would translate to C students at best, but sucess at self-employment and sustainable cash flow doesn’t really correspond to letter grades that they earned in school.

    I don’t see it as letter grade breakdown per say, although I understand the gist of the argument. Some A students would be great entrepreneurs or need a more real-world type career, while some B students would do really well in academics, particulary if they are genius in just a niche area. I have seen some IQ studies that indicate that far too often students with moderate or high IQs are negatively impacted while often the A students are slightly smarter than average. So a really smart kid in a niche area would make a great professor or researcher, but appear to be a B student overall. People extremely talented in music and arts also need help not be starving artisits, but their overall letter grades could be anything.

  3. Soapbox0916 says:

    Oops! in my post above, I meant a really smart kid could be a B student and I meant starving artists. Haste makes waste.

  4. georgelarson says:

    I think history has a place in the education of an entrepreneur if history included economic and business history. History as it appears to be taught to day is probably a waste for many. Political and social agenda’s are getting in the way of teaching what might be valuable.

  5. History as it appears to be taught to day is probably a waste for many. Political and social agenda’s are getting in the way of teaching what might be valuable.

    Evidence? You see, making arguments based on evidence is what history teachers actually teach. Try it some time.

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    “Tell that to the majority of Fortune 500 company CEOs who are…wait for it…history degree graduates.”

    Do you mean plurality instead of majority? If not, I would like to see a citation that 251 out of 500 Fortune CEOs have degrees in history.

  7. georgelarson says:


    Will textbook gays deter bullying?
    April 5, 2011 By Joanne 9 Comments
    In hopes of preventing bullying, California may require textbooks to include the “contributions” of gay, lesbian and transgender Americans, reports the Los Angeles Times. Social studies books and other materials would have to include “a study of the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans … to the economic, political and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”

    Since California buys so many textbooks, “publishers often produce books tailored to California that other states use as well,” notes the Times. On the other hand, the state has postponed buying new books for several years because of the enormous budget deficit.

    Gay rights activists say the legislation is overdue and would extend recognition long provided in textbooks and classrooms to historical figures who are African American, Latino and Asian American.

    Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, introduced the bill.

    In an emotional plea for the bill at a recent legislative hearing, Leno invoked the name of Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old student from Tehachapi who committed suicide last year after facing anti-gay bullying at school.

    “In light of the ongoing and ever-threatening phenomenon of bullying and the tragic result of suicides, it seems to me that better informed students might be more welcoming in their approach to differences among their classmates,” Leno said in an interview. “Students would better understand that we are talking about a civil rights movement.”

    I don’t believe bullies wouldn’t bully if they just knew about Walt Whitman and Willa Cather or even Bayard Rustin.

    But it seems churlish to keep gay Americans in the closet when we already stuff textbooks with the “contributions” of racial and ethnic minorities, plus exemplary women. Crispus Attucks gets equal play with Samuel Adams, the beer guy. FDR’s space shrinks to make room for Eleanor.

    Perhaps discussing whether Abraham Lincoln was gay will engage students who prefer to discuss sex rather than states rights, slavery or industrialization.

    The new biography of Gandhi suggests he had a homoerotic relationship with a bodybuilder in South Africa. Gandhi was gay? If only the bullies knew!

  8. While I agree that trigonometry is useless for most individuals, I’m not sure I’m comfortable making the judgment call at 15 or 16 which students will study it and which won’t. Few adults I know are in the careers to which they aspired as sophomores in high school. Many of them switched well into their late 20’s or even early 30’s.

  9. I’m of two minds with this issue:

    One, I would love for all people to have a firm intellectual grounding in history, philosophy, science, literature, etc. for the purpose of civics. Studies show that many people have a hard time comparing and contrasting two Op-Eds. The ability to deeply think on issues is important and is best developed using a rigorous liberal arts (humanities and science) curriculum.

    On the other hand, I find that a large proportion of the population is not interested in the above and it cannot be forced to be interested.

    I tend to run in circles that value the first option but I have become much more aware of the fact that we are probably a minority. This may sound elitist but it seems to be the case. Often this same group of people is who ends up being in charge of things like education therefore they try to instill their way of seeing education even if this is not what the population desires.

  10. georgelarson says:

    I question if most schools can explicitly teach entrepreneurship in their classes. I am happy Scott Adams got lucky and accidently learned some of what he needed in school. I do not think schools can have many opportunities to practice being an entrepreneur. Combining the roles of teacher and entrepreneur seem contradictory to me. I am sure there are exceptions, but are there enough of them?

    I feel the same way about leadership. I am amazed that anyone can claim to explicitly teach how to be a leader. I have actually attended leadership schools. They did not teach leadership. They really taught followership and techniques. The techniques were useful. I did learn some leadership from some of my classmates.

    Since many us will not become entrepreneurs, professionals or scholars but instead become bureaucrats why not teach the methods of succeeding in large pyramid shaped organizations. That is not really part of the business curriculum either. Business schools teach how to operate on top of the pyramid, not on succeeding at the bottom and possibly working part way up.

  11. Curious Cat links to a survey concluding that engineering is the most common major for Fortune 500 CEOs.

    Fortune says older CEOs tended to have technical majors, such as engineering, but “current CEOs are more apt to have concentrated from the start on business or economics.”

  12. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    “Dilbert” Adams makes an interesting case for education in purely utilitarian terms. I agree that “college for all” is a quixotic-but-idiotic pipe dream…not everyone can or should go to college. It smacks of elitism to say that there is something inherently more valuable about being a doctor, lawyer or (gasp) sociologist or ethnomusicologist than a plumber, electrician or mechanic. Obviously, people have diverse talents and interests. We need to stop trying to fit square pegs in round holes (and vice versa) all in the name of “rigor” and political correctness. “Rigor” is a MEANS to the end of learning, not an end in itself. The fact that many colleges and universities offer remedial classes to undergrad students is a pathetic joke. Waaay too many students get into 4-year universities and colleges. High schools should invite representatives from trade and vocational schools, alongside the reps for “College Night”. Bring some common sense and sanity back to education (yeah, probably another pipe dream!)

  13. Charles R. Williams says:

    Entrepreneurship cannot really be taught in schools. So I would say we are over-schooling but under-educating young people. The kind of education they lack is the education people get from both nuclear and extended families and from their peers. Too many parents have farmed out the education of their children to schools and this is not working well for the majority of children. Way too many students lack the experience of running a lemonade stand or managing a paper route. When I have taught Calculus for Business Applications, it became all too clear that most of my students had no understanding of the simplest concepts of business – concepts they should grasp intuitively from the rich store of personal experiences that they don’t have.

  14. bill eccleston says:

    Schoolwork was harder than real work when everybody was a farmer? More complex? How does Scott Adams presume to have a theory of education based on history when it appears that his knowledge of the subject has such a gap? Schoolwork harder and more complex than farm work? Visit Sturbridge Village, Mr. Adams, and spend an afternoon in the back room of one of the farmhouses interviewing the lady of the establishment. Your “theory” that life in a farm community then was a matter of pushing around a few tools will vanish as you begin trading tales of your own experience in the coffee house.. As for your idea of teaching history lite, well, isn’t that exactly what we have been doing or the past 40 years? Ah! But what a Marxist would see in that is your own self interest: Don’t we appear, more and more, to be a nation that informs itself on the great issues of the day by reading cartoons?

  15. Everhopeful says:

    Eric, do you have a link to the study you referred to here?

    “in a recent study, more medical school applicants who graduated with a humanities degree were accepted – percentage-wise – than those who graduated with a hard science degree.”

  16. Scott Adams is an interesting fellow who has the gift of questioning established ideas–like the mania for “mission statements” that hit all schools, businesses, and homeless panhandlers a few years back. His comic strips hit the mark so well that they’re often too good to be true.

    But he’s better at raising questions rather than providing workable answers.

    And if you read a bit of his bio, you’ll see that he tried out some whack-o ideas himself.

    Anything Scott Adams has to say is worth thinking about. As yet, I haven’t given his ideas enough thought to have an opinion on them.

    As for the thoughts on education from those outside the profession, Steve Wozniak is still my favorite and Steve Jobs’ commencement address is still right up there as a must-read.

  17. George Larson says:


    The percentage of non-science majors accepted into medical school fits well with the assertion of the need for graduates to have a broad breadth of knowledge. Students with a strong background and success in the sciences need not necessarily major in the sciences to get accepted into medical school. The percentage of applicants accepted to medical school among non-science majors was 45.5 percent, only slightly lower than the percentage among science majors and interdisciplinary majors. Of the non-science majors, the field of anthropology was the field with the highest acceptance rate at 53.5 percent. History, English, economics, and philosophy were also well-represented among the non-science majors at a rate of 50 percent or better.

    Read more: The Best Majors for Admission to Medical School | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/list_5831835_majors-admission-medical-school.html#ixzz1JinFjY6k

  18. Bear in mind that there are relatively few non-science majors who apply to med school (~4000 versus ~20000 in 2000-2001). You can see the raw data at

    The interesting thing to me is that the life science majors actually have slightly lower average acceptance rates than the other majors, including non-science. However, realize that a non-science major who completes the pre-med curriculum even though none of the courses count as part of their major is usually a pretty terrific student across the board!

    Also the single major with the highest acceptance rate to med school was Biomedical Engineering (65.3%) — all the biology and lots of math and physics too.