Maybe Commerce Dulls Critical Thinking

Whether you’re part of the working world or still a student, no sane person can argue that critical thinking, or at the very least the capability for individual thought, is not of vital importance. Beyer (1995) refers to critical thinking as making clear, reasoned judgements, and most definitions you find will be somewhat along these lines. Unless you’re pursuing an academic definition from a source such as The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. Yes that’s a real thing, as I’ve discovered prior to writing this. Individual thought on the other hand can be seen as the ability to make up your own mind and reason for yourself, and not just follow the bandwagon. To many these skills are obvious necessities, but it never ceases to amuse me whenever I notice their clear absence in everyday life.

It’s tricky to write about a topic like this for two reasons. The first is that there is no hard evidence or numbers I can show you, as I’m largely going on my three years plus as a university student in addition to varying perspectives of others both in and out of commerce. The second reason follows from the first, and it’s of course that I haven’t met every single commerce student or engaged them all on a personal level. It’s important to understand then that I’m merely offering observations for the purpose of discussion and thought, and not providing any founded conclusions or making mass generalisations. I suppose this is just a little disclaimer before proceeding.

I am currently in commerce myself, incidentally, studying a Business Science degree with a major in Organisational Psychology. To briefly give you an interesting story as background, I can remember an incident clearly back on orientation day over three years ago when I began my life as a university student. The various course convenors and necessary authorities were lined up in front of a large lecture hall, in which all the new young bloods like myself were seated. We were asked to raise our hands if we were studying finance with the goal of becoming a Chartered Accountant. Would you believe that almost the entire lecture hall had their hands raised? It must have been about 80% of the students. The reasons given for studying it varied from “my parents told me to do it” to “I was told it’s where the money is at” to “I don’t know”. Was I really one of few who actually chose their degree for a specific reason? Was it weird that I wasn’t motivated by money?

That’s when I first began having my doubts about commerce, as I got a taste of the mind set that seems to go with it. It’s pretty funny that all those parents who said “Chartered Accountant” probably never did it themselves, right? Being an expert is easy, I suppose. In any case in my degree there are two courses thus far that I know specifically relate to critical thinking, namely Evidence Based Management in my first year and this year Business Ethics. Initially my reactions were somewhat puzzled, as most of the course content of EBM was obvious to me, and I aced the course comfortably. However a large number of first years were seemingly blown away by the content, as if it was the first time they’d ever engaged in critical thought or had to think for themselves. Similarly in Business Ethics I’ve heard people say they like it “because it deals with controversial issues” and “we actually have to think hard on real world issues.”

You may be thinking about the student audience, so I’ll point out that EBM is a commerce course while Business Ethics is technically a philosophy (thus Humanities) course, yet it’s a requirement of commerce students to study it. The above anecdotes give a decent background of the general thought I’m trying to convey. It’s a common trend in commerce to look down on humanities students, likely because money is the key motivator. Yet I can comfortably say that the least interesting people with the least interesting things to say have all been commerce students. Before you think that’s because I’m only in commerce, I interact primarily with commerce, humanities and engineering students, as most of my good friends are in engineering and my courses are split between commerce and humanities.

I’ve often noticed in my university that the humanities students are more open and more willing to have a conversation that doesn’t revolve around campus itself. Don’t get me wrong. Commerce students seem highly efficient and academically smart. They can work, they can produce results, they can deal with intense work pressure and they can tackle complex problems and have the capacity to do it. But ask for their opinion on something controversial? Or ask them to critically think on something? Or engage them in a debate that has the potential to get heated? Challenge their beliefs? Awkward. Often they don’t really have an opinion on something, or perhaps aren’t willing to part with it. Maybe they don’t care. It’s funny that despite two courses in critical thinking, it seems like the thing that’s most missing from the commerce students I’ve interacted with over the years.

Why is this? I believe that it starts with the parents. Often parents feed their children bullshit about getting rich, and shy away from approaches along the lines of “study what will enrich you personally”, or “study what you’re passionate about”. Hence all those Chartered Accountant students who aren’t particularly passionate about anything they’re doing. Now it’s difficult for students and parents alike, because parents want their kids to be successful and not struggle and kids who just come out of high school don’t know what they want to do or even who are they are really, so they’re susceptible to blatantly following advice from someone else, whether due to laziness to not find out about each degree or fear of making the wrong decision. It’s hard to assign blame, and I’m not trying to do that, but rather discuss the process.

After that it falls at the shoes of the students. There are dozens of reasons for the mind to dull, whether these students’ workloads are too high or they’re motivated by money or they’re still unsure what they want or perhaps they haven’t found their passion. I’ve often heard from my tutors and lecturers that the big problem they find in commerce students is that they can do the work they’re given, but without the understanding of why or what the purpose is. I can see that in myself even, particularly with maths, stats and accounting courses, as you’re so focused on passing and such that you just want to be able to do the work right mechanically. Perhaps critical thinking and individuality seem like unhelpful skills – until you enter the real world or have to deal with something controversial or challenge beliefs.

Naturally the rest would fall to the subject matter and the way you’re taught, as the environment is one of working and not particularly one of enlightenment or learning. I suppose you’re learning how to work, but you’re not really learning how to apply what you learn, even realistically. At least not in the first three years. However the other problem that extends from all of the above in commerce is that often students who emerge from a degree in it think they’re entitled to big bucks, or ready to make the money, and aren’t necessarily prepared for once again going back to being bottom of the food chain and only having a foot in the door, not a winning lottery ticket.

I could drone on about this topic, but I feel I’ve conveyed my general thought, which is that commerce seems to dull critical and individual thought, and to many extent creative thought as well. At least based on observation, years spent in university and many opinions from other students, lecturers and those in the working world. The reasons are all over the place, although I’d cite parents, student uncertainty and the education environment as three core reasons for why this happens. It’s disappointing since I’m in a commerce degree myself, albeit one inclined towards humanities, and the only way to alleviate the damage would appear to be on your own time through your own efforts, which would include being well-read, having an attitude geared towards learning and self-improvement, engaging in conversation and challenging the beliefs held by yourself and others.

After all a mind needs to be challenged if it’s to grow and evolve.

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