Classics or business? A matter of degrees: Homer, Aristotle and Caesar, or knowledge management and valuing a brand? Which disciplines are the best foundation for a business career? Are courses of practical use essential in the new economy, or should stud

Classics or business? A matter of degrees: Homer, Aristotle and Caesar, or knowledge management and valuing a brand? Which disciplines are the best foundation for a business career? Are courses of practical use essential in the new economy, or should stud

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Every August hundreds of young people - including Prince William this year - receive their A-level results, hoping they will match the requirements of the university of their choice. This has been a matter of some debate since May, when the case of Laura Spence came to public attention. As pointed out by the Admissions Tutor for Magdalen College and as shown by the clearing lists in the press, there is a mismatch between what universities offer, especially the older ones, and the courses for which students apply.

The past decade has brought an increasing demand for degrees that sound 'useful' and have the name of a job attached to them. Medicine (for which Laura applied) is one; Law is another. And now a growing number of universities offer undergraduate degrees in 'business studies'. Such courses are oversubscribed by comparison with more traditional subjects. But are they something universities do well? More fundamentally, is the academic study of business the best preparation for management and a lifetime during which businesses may develop that do not yet exist?

Business courses are wrongly labelled as appearing to offer the preparation for a particular profession. But they can't offer mastery of a particular body of data, as Medicine does. Management needs people with well-exercised brains, disciplined habits of thought, the ability to assess evidence and an understanding of how people function and can be directed - dare I say, led? These are not newly desirable attributes required for the first time by the demands of the 21st century. Many ambitious young people are failing to realise that the degree quaintly called Classics - the study of the language, thought and history of the Greeks and Romans - has evolved over 2,000 years to offer precisely that.

A good Classics course presents young people with what they need most at that stage - gymnastics for the mind - in a far richer context than any business degree can offer. The element in the degree that terrifies countless students is learning Latin or Greek. Both are difficult, but learning the ancient languages develops diligence, accuracy and analytical skill. Mastering them requires similar skills to mastering mathematics and it is well known that Classics students take particularly easily to computing. They also acquire a competence in the handling of language in general and should emerge both precise and fluent - a precious combination.

Classicists also learn the rules of logical argument in studying the period when logic and scientific method were established and defined.

Logic is essential but frequently not sufficient in the management of human affairs. The Greeks and Romans understood that organisation and leadership depend on putting your case clearly and winning people over.

The study of their literature allows an understanding of how that is done; the study of their history offers a dramatic range of case studies of success and failure in organisations of every kind. For anyone considering a takeover in the City, the study of Julius Caesar has much to offer.

In looking at these situations far away and long ago, the student has constantly to assess the evidence. Caesar had his spin-doctors and violent opponents. Truth must be extracted from the misleading words of both sides and from evidence of every kind: bricks and pot-shards found in an excavation may contribute to our understanding. The energetic pursuit of archaeology means that our understanding of the past is not static but constantly changing. Students are being asked to challenge received ideas in the light of new evidence and make lateral connections.

Classics is not for the faint-hearted. It is a rich and demanding course, far better suited to the formation of young minds than the study of business.

The Classics graduate should emerge with accurate and logical thought; with a powerful control of language and its use in motivating and directing other people; with an understanding of the varied mechanisms of human situations; and what Socrates identified as the basis of all wisdom - a full realisation of what one does not know. They will enter their first job under no illusion that they already know it all; they will arrive ready to cope with whatever the 21st century is going to throw at them.

I submit that Classics Departments up and down Britain are offering the best preparation for managing the millennium.



Your letter seems to be mainly a defence of the study of the Classics as a basis for a successful corporate career, rather than a questioning of the value of teaching Business or Management Studies to undergraduates.

The problem here is surely the (I presume) ignorance of the writers. I don't know whether Classics forms a good basis for corporate life, since I have never studied for a degree in Classics (my degrees were in Economics).

You are probably similarly unqualified to criticise Management Studies, as it is likely you have not taken or taught such a degree and may well not know what essential issues and subjects it addresses.

However, I am not suggesting that the classicist who goes into business is unqualified to address business issues. One of the criticisms often levelled at the perceived poor performance of Britain's Treasury mandarins since the war is that they were more often Greats men than economists, but I don't want to associate myself with this oft-touted view. My mission in this letter is to defend the teaching of Management Studies at undergraduate level, not to rebut the thesis that the study of the ancients provides an excellent preparation for corporate life.

(No-one would doubt the value of the study of Machiavelli in this regard.)

I would support the business studies thesis as follows. A large number of new graduates go into corporate life immediately after university.

Many school-leavers have no specific bent or great subject love and have a strong desire to equip themselves as soon and as best they can for corporate life. Rarely do they have an adequate knowledge of Latin and Greek. For such students a degree in Management Studies is ideally suited. It will involve the study of the evolution of management, the study of microeconomics, strategy, and human resource management. It will also involve operations management - production methods, technology, finance and accounting, information management and marketing. It would be difficult to argue that such studies do not help the would-be corporate manager understand the world he or she intends to enter.

Of course, you may end up a captain of industry after studying anything at undergraduate level - from Physics through Classics to English or History - and the 'culture' gained thereby is to be valued highly. However, the world is becoming a focused and 'quick results' place. For those who wish to take the short cut, miss out on the Classics and go straight for Business Studies, the BA in Management is there for them to study. They will miss out on the cultural education that more academic study may provide, but this is different from saying they will not find their management studies degree valuable in helping them flourish in the corporate world.

That this is how young people feel today is evidenced by the fact that in my university, Oxford, the Economics and Management degree is the fastest growing of all in terms of applications, and has nearly 10 qualified applicants predicting three As at A-level, compared with the university average of three for all other courses. The level of demand and the quality of the students is therefore unquestionable. At the other end, the jobs secured three years later by Economics and Management graduates from this university are highly coveted and very well paid.

The only remaining issue, then, is that of the value and importance of the depth and breadth gained by studying a more traditional subject first.

No doubt there is truth in this. But if one feels there isn't time for this, the management degree is there to be studied even as an undergraduate.

Vocational subjects have always been taught at undergraduate level - engineering, law, medicine, theology, computer studies. So why not management?



Why not management? Because management is not a monolithic profession, requiring the control of a specific body of data. A manager may manage any kind of business - a cake stall or a kingdom. Many professionals need management skills alongside their professional knowledge; it is sensible to incorporate business courses in, say, art or engineering degrees. But the common denominator - your 'essential issues' - must be the management of people, who remain people even when described as human resources.

You clearly cover one important area that we do not - numeracy. But many highly intelligent students are not comfortable with the language of numbers.

We aim to teach accuracy and analysis, not least by teaching the ancient languages from scratch, and many of our students go on to accountancy.

Strikingly, the national unemployment rate among Classics graduates a year after graduation is half that among business and accountancy graduates.

Your central point seems to be that yours is an attractive training for those who want to go into business but have to go to university first.

The name of the degree offers a dangerously alluring prospect of immediate 'reality'. But our duty as academics is not to offer students what they think they want but something more enduring; it is a disservice to the young to suggest there is a short cut. For graduates who have work experience, the MBA is excellent, but I see real dangers in presenting a course of this kind at undergraduate level. You appear to offer a quick route to the 'real' world, when all you provide is the study of the present and the immediate past to young people facing 40 years of change.

Let them develop their mental skills studying a world that they know to be profoundly different; they will graduate expecting the unexpected, ready to deal with tomorrow, not yesterday. I haven't even mentioned the cultural gains - literature, philosophy or art - in Classics. Graduates may have to set them aside when they start working, but for many their studies turn out to be among the most substantial investments they make towards retirement. But, from the 18-year-old's perspective, it is important to learn to manage not last week's problem or idea but the dynamics of human affairs - the subject matter of a degree in Classics.



We seem to disagree on our terms here. I am trying to address the issue 'Should management be taught at undergraduate level?' You seem to be supporting the motion that 'The study of Classics provides a better grounding for a career in management than the study of management'. I suppose that for Classics one could substitute anthropology, psychology, the study of literature and, indeed, any of the natural sciences without weakening the thesis - although you would prefer Classics, since that is your subject area.

Let us remove from the debate what is not at issue between us. I wholly approve of these disciplines: they teach much of value to someone entering a corporate career. I agree that if students want further academic management study beyond that provided by business experience, they can usefully take an MBA later. Indeed, I teach on the MBA at Oxford. The point at issue seems to be that you hold that Management, as an undergraduate course, has no right to be in a university curriculum. However, many of your criticisms of Management would also apply to Economics, which is equally acultural yet rarely receives such criticisms today.

Let me restate my position. The study of management is as valid as the study of anything else in the social sciences and is pursued by identical qualitative and quantitative research methods. The discipline is advanced largely through academic books and contributions to peer-reviewed learned journals, but without losing contact with the 'outside world'. Its teachers are largely those with a greater vocation for teaching and public service than the pure pursuit of power and money-making.

Indeed, it can be distinguished from other social sciences in a university only by the fact that, being younger, it is still characterised by active debate as it seeks to coalesce into an accepted corpus of knowledge. It does not yet have a single generally accepted academic paradigm, as its teachers come from disciplines as varied as Economics, Sociology, Social Anthropology, Psychology, History and Political Theory. This does not invalidate it as a subject for academic study, nor for the provision of undergraduate degrees. Indeed, some might regard this state as rather exciting!



It's the old question: what is a university and what belongs there? The fact that we can work in the same system yet be so ignorant of each other's subjects suggests a certain confusion. How much more obscure it must be to people outside the system.

Back again to the ancient Greeks, who first began to observe phenomena and try to extract the rules of their behaviour - so astronomy for the rules governing the stars and economics for those governing (originally) the running of one's estate. Not all such sciences are equally precise. It is easier to predict our next eclipse than our next stock-market slump. But they all belong in the university, where originally they emerged from the study of the ancient authors who had laid the ground rules. The common feature is standing back to look and evaluate.

Standing back does not come naturally to the young, who want to press on and are strongly attracted by courses that appear to offer practical action. That is already the case in the sixth form: my views on A-level Business Studies are too pungent for a respectable journal. Our job, as we prepare students for lives of increasing length, is to delay them, to teach them to detach themselves, to analyse and understand before they act. That is why they come to university to be taught by researchers, not by practitioners. So, while the study of Economics fits well into such a structure, I wonder whether Management is equally appropriate - and, if it is, whether that is perhaps because you are in fact teaching Economics, with contributions from the other disciplines that you mention, and calling it Management to make it sound more relevant.

Our students have the expectation of a long life but have only one chance to go to university. There are two questions a prospective student should ask about a course: first, 'Is university the best place to learn this?', and, second, 'If I don't study this now, will I ever have a chance to study it again?' I doubt whether a course in Management meets either of these questions; I know that the study of Classical Antiquity does, that it produces well-prepared students with a range of intellectual skills and a rich store of wisdom on which to draw throughout their lives. Surely a better investment.



I must insist I have no quarrel with Classics as a discipline valuable for training the mind as well as many other things. I crave, however, some tolerance in your attitude to newer disciplines. The study of Management, at least at Oxford, is carried out in no less disciplined and academic a way than the study of any other subject. It is done by doctorally qualified academics who 'observe phenomena and try to extract the rules of their behaviour', as you put it. The only difference is that, in a newish subject, there is a less certain corpus of accepted knowledge, and a 'dominant design paradigm' has not yet been universally adopted.

This was the case for Economics at the beginning of last century and even more recently for Sociology. It is therefore a challenging time to be involved in the development of the academic study of management, and perhaps incumbent upon the doubters to investigate carefully before condemning.

I believe our BA in Economics and Management would stand the scrutiny of any academic from a more traditional subject area.

You imply that academic subjects can be distinguished from vocational ones and that only academic ones are worthy of study at a university.

Surely that old battle was laid to rest long ago. Engineering, law and medicine, to name but three respected subjects, all have their place in universities by common consent, yet all are vocational in the accepted sense. Indeed, Oxford was founded 700 years ago as a training school for the Church.

We students of management do not seek to knock your subject or its relevance to the modern world. May we not be granted similar tolerance as we contribute to a body of knowledge that will aid in the understanding of organisations, their aims and the most effective way to run them. Management Studies have the right to exist in a university and, judging by its popularity, the younger generation think so, too. Could they just possibly be right?


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