Across the country, thousands of high-school seniors are making one of their first big life decisions: where to attend university. Under the pre-emptive pressure of a porous job market, these bright students are considering not only where but what they will study for the next four years.
Gone are the days when most students opted to major in the humanities, spending their undergraduate years reading Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes or Betty Friedan, then receiving more informal training on the job. Although the dichotomy between the humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education streams is often discussed, the appeal of undergraduate business programs has been largely underexamined.
Thousands of Canadian students will enroll in undergraduate business programs this September after conquering some of the country's most rigorous admissions requirements. In the course of these degrees, they will learn at least as much as the older students do in their often overly acclaimed master of business administration programs.
Undergraduate business programs undoubtedly prepare students for lucrative careers, with many top students securing highly sought-after jobs in accounting, consulting, finance and marketing. That said, the most remarkable students in our program were not necessarily those who could navigate from operating profit to free cash flow the quickest, but those who could easily perform such tasks while seeking to broaden their learning beyond the business world.
It's easy to understand how students come to define success exclusively as a function of measurable achievement in their business programs, given the brazen claims of figures such as Donald Trump and Kevin O'Leary, who feel that running a business qualifies them to run a country. The idea that understanding a marketing plan or an audit rather than reading The Wealth of Nations gives an individual greater claim to understanding of how the world works could not be further from the truth.
Business is very seldom an end in itself. The pursuit of business success is usually an intermediary goal in the pursuit of human advancement. Companies exist to develop technology, generate innovative ideas and build infrastructure, and can be important partners to the public sector in advocating for broad social goals. Those who achieve the greatest success are typically not those who limit themselves to business education, but those with a commensurate interest in and passion for greater goals.
This is not to discourage high-school seniors from studying undergraduate business, because a business education is valuable in any career. Rather, it's an opinion on the value of other disciplines.
All undergraduate business programs make room for elective courses, which present important opportunities for enrichment. Although it may be tempting to take perfunctory courses in which 80 per cent of students receive an A-plus, a more challenging sociology, economics or philosophy elective is an invaluable opportunity to expand on a traditional business education. At worst, such courses can serve as an important change of pace. At best, they can ignite an intellectual curiosity that will endure for years to come.
To the incoming undergraduate business students of the class of 2020, congratulations. This education will be an exciting opportunity and a privilege.
But between the spreadsheets and the presentations, take time to indulge your intellectual curiosities and discover what makes you tick.
Developing a unique interdisciplinary perspective will not only remind you why you chose a business education, but also allow you to fully utilize it beyond the classroom.
Yuting Pan and Max Townsend both recently graduated from the Smith School of Business at Queen's University. They will be starting their careers in New York this month.