Of Business and Basketweaving

Scrooge, before liberal arts

Scrooge, before liberal arts education.

How’s this for an attention grabber? I think many of today’s business students are woefully, and perhaps willfully, undereducated.

When you study and teach the liberal arts, you never lack for those willing to offer their estimation of your work: “Arts and Crafts.” “Basketweaving.” “You can always join a book club.” “You people, sitting around talking about how wonderful Shakespeare is.” “What are you going to do with THAT?” “It’s just fluff.”

Gallingly, these comments often come from those with little or no experience of a liberal arts education. More gallingly, at least two of the statements above were made to me by academics — in business schools.

In decades and centuries past, those disciplines now seen as the shining examples of university achievement – applied sciences and social sciences – would have been relegated to technical schools or even apprenticeship training. Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, did not attend university to gain his business skills. (And, whatever else you might say about him, Scrooge was a successful businessman.) His career began with an apprenticeship with Mr. Fezziwig. And, as Dickens pointed out, Scrooge suffered from a lack of connection to humanity. His dream-vision (an old narrative form, as English majors know) comprises an education in humanity, a reflection on history, and a study of human social interaction. He must be taught the value of “fluff.”

Scrooge, after liberal arts education.

Scrooge, after liberal arts education.

When the applied sciences, including business, were admitted into the university setting, most universities required students to undertake a study of the liberal arts in addition to studies of applied skills. We still see the remnants of this system: we require doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and teachers, for example, to have some exposure to the liberal arts before proceeding to professional colleges. And, in the past, business students, too, were expected to study history, literature, politics, and philosophy alongside marketing and accounting.

However, these days, business schools admit students straight out of high school. Any expectation of a liberal arts education has been relegated to undefined “elective classes,” mostly left to the student’s discretion. Once in university, many business students seldom stray beyond the perceived walls of their area of study. They are more likely to pursue electives that lie close to home, like economics, or that will guarantee high marks, rather than building knowledge of the world now and in the past.

As a result, few of these students – and even some of the faculty – have any real acquaintance with what we would call a liberal arts education. Indeed, when many faculty discuss the liberal arts, it’s often in terms of service provision. I’ve been told that English, for example, should be about teaching grammar, not a study of literature (“Join a book club.”). Worse, they feel quite comfortable dismissing the value of a liberal arts education, even to the point of suggesting that we need no longer engage with studies that do not directly reflect life as we currently perceive it (“It’s fluff.”).

Having been granted a place in the academy, why do these scholars-come-lately presume to dictate who may now have a place in the academy?

Where, in the “real world,” does the last person invited to the party get to vet the guest list?

To paraphrase Margaret Atwood (for the first and last time), it wouldn’t be such a problem if business students, graduates, professionals, and academics weren’t as powerful as they are. But they are, so it is.

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A Doubleplusungood Week

My university – “my” as in the place I grew up as a child of faculty, where I received part of my university education, and where I have taught for the last decade or so –made international headlines again this week, and not in a good way.

My university fired a dean for blowing the whistle on a gag rule. As we learned this week, my university expected its deans not only to keep shtum on the discussions and reasoning behind a hotly debated round of budget cuts-related shenanigans but also to parrot the talking points that insisted these budget cuts were a good thing.

Buckingham's letter of termination.

Buckingham’s letter of termination.

Others can discuss concepts of academic freedom, collegiality, and even whether or not the budget cuts are warranted. I could offer an analysis of the grammatical and stylistic elements of the dean’s walking papers (numerous problems with comma use, flawed parallelism, disingenuous use of passive voice to cloak agency and responsibility). However, right now, I want to reflect on the role of language in the past few days, weeks, and months.

First, the event itself involves language. As the dean – excuse me, the Executive Director of the School of Public Health (the president and provost stressed his title was not “Dean”) – revealed, he and his colleagues were enjoined not only to maintain confidentiality on sensitive discussion but also to offer verbal support of all decisions made, whether or not they agreed with them.

Just to clarify: deans were expected not only to refrain from criticism but also to praise the decisions, regardless of the impact of those decisions on their constituencies. So, here we have not only an order to silence but also an order to potentially false speech. Keep quiet and, if you must speak, lie.

Now, what about the language used when speech was allowed?

In his much-cited “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell connects rigourous language with rigourous thought. In 1984, he presents a dystopian society in which language serves as a means to enslave humanity. Language becomes both tenor and vehicle of propaganda, medium and message. In addition to a constant barrage of contradictory messages (“War is peace”), the inhabitants of Orwell’s London experiment with “efficient” language. Thus, “good, bad, and worse” become “good, ungood, plusungood.” Simplifying language eliminates the effort of thought: “Doubleplusungood,” for example, requires less brow wrinkling than “betrayal of core values of academic practice.” How we describe an event, the words we use or are instructed to use, becomes instrumental in our view of that event. Or, in Orwell’s words, “if thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.”

Over past year or so, I’ve noticed a change in the way my university communicates – the words it was using to communicate its values and vision. Language was being used not just to share information, but in an attempt to shape our responses to the information. That use of language is not new; what struck me, however, was the graceless and cynical way with which it was used in an attempt to persuade — or even gull — an academic audience.

To begin, this wasn’t a budget-cutting exercise: this was a metamorphosis! The name given to the process signaled our pleading desire for reconfiguration: TransformUS! At the same time, a new terminology emerged as senior players discussed the process and the tensions arising from it.

The literal terms of the conflict were set by the university’s upper management or, as they repeatedly referred to themselves, “our leaders” (and, in one publication, “fearless leaders”). We aren’t a community of students, scholars, and supporters. We are leaders, non-leaders, and workers. According to our Provost, we are “leaders” and “non-leaders.”

Who are these leaders? Leaders are those who don’t fear change. Leaders are those who don’t criticize change. Conversely, those who criticize change — because they “fear change” — are “non-leaders.” (It gets worse.)

Our Associate Vice-President, Communications offers his own view. In his words, our university could be divided into leaders — who lead change — and “those who work at the university.” Who are these people who “work at the university”? The Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of “worker” chiefly as one involved in manual labour (“a farm worker”) or in the lower echelons of an enterprise (“one who does manual or non-executive work”). Certainly, the university requires people willing to perform manual labour. But, who are the “non-executive” workers?

The AVPC’s taxonomy lumps into the category of “those who work at the university” not just those who don’t lead the university (see above: “non-leaders”) but, more significantly, the faculty: the faculty, whose output – in teaching and research – is the sole purpose of the university’s existence. So, according to the expressed view of our leaders, faculty – as “those who work at the university”– occupy the low position in the university’s great chain of being.

As faculty, we are not leaders. We are non-leaders. We are workers. None of these revelations would be troublesome if the university could exist without faculty, people conducting research, building knowledge, and teaching students. Our “leaders” seem to have lost sight of that fact.

So, if you’re not a “leader,” what are you?  And what, as a “non-leader,” should you do when you’re not “working”? For our convenience, our leaders have delineated the differences between leadership and non-work related non-leadership action. In the words of our Provost, you can either “lead the university” or you can “oppose the university.” No middle ground exists. Working from Dr. Buckingham’s experience, we can understand the significance of these categories:

  • “Lead the university”: don’t criticize, follow orders, and repeat the lines given to you.
  • “Oppose the university”: demand and present evidence, argue your case, and criticize policies and directives that fly in the face of centuries of academic practice.

Or, we could use Orwell’s simpler terms:

  • Good: Leaders and “Transformation.”
  • Ungood: Non-leaders and workers.
  • Doubleplusungood: Protests of the betrayal of the core values of academic practice.

By George, I think I’ve got it!

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It was a dark and Stormy satire

Recently, our local television news reported on a professor’s office décor. The story, which dubbed David “Stormy” Williams “The Professor of Profanity,” concerned a group of inflatable dolls and a series of posters that Williams displayed in his office.

Williams calls the dolls his “executive team.” The posters satirize the all-too-common features of many offices: the faux inspirational mantras and clip images exhorting workers to work harder, faster, stronger to achieve . . . what? The posters in Williams’ office acknowledge a harsh reality of business: “Keep buying shit or we’re all fucked.”keep buying

Discussions of academic freedom aside (exactly where the television reporter left them), I’m a tad puzzled. Where’s the offense?

The language? These words, while vulgar, cross no lines of religious sensibility. They’re not sexist, ageist, or racist. Indeed, they’re amongst the oldest words in the English language, some predating the Norman Conquest.

lunch decoyThe dolls? While they clearly owe a debt to inflatable sex dolls, these figures have no orifices and display no “nudity.” Their mouths do not open, and their clothes mimic traditional office attire, albeit painted on.

Further, Williams did not design or manufacture these items. He bought them from businesses. And now, he’s fucked.

Williams has been accused of creating a hostile workplace, yet what is more hostile than the forcible redesign of one’s workspace according to some ersatz and sanitized notion of corporate culture?

In an earlier post, I discussed people who, while capable of acts of economic and military obscenity, cannot bring themselves to use certain words – a strange and misplaced prudishness in light of the destruction unleashed upon us by men like Mitt Romney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Sadly, Williams has fallen victim to this same misplaced and misinformed sense of delicacy that focuses more on our words than on our actions.

When I taught university-level introductory English literature courses, I insisted my students read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Swift’s satirical attack on the feeble attempts to help impoverished Irish Catholics — with its outrage-inspiring suggestion that these people could raise their children for meat — continues to inspire essayists and activists. Because of that legacy, I felt the essay was important for students to confront, consider, and understand as an example of satirical power. And, as the popularity of Stephen Colbert and Rick Mercer suggests, we still appreciate sharp satire.

One way I approached the essay was to have students evaluate Swift’s project as a business plan, a familiar approach since so many of them embrace the argument that the sole virtue of their education lay in their improved ability to earn an income that would allow for unfettered consumption of market goods. Thus, they focussed on the economic benefits of Swift’s plan: the generation of revenue alongside the reduction of the taxes for publicly funded support services.

Swift’s seeming proposal is obscene, yet his writing does not stray beyond the pale of gentility (and he did have access to some lovely swear words, trust me). In the classroom, I noted Swift’s wielding of the power of numbers, reflected in the ease with which students accepted numbers and projections without question. Some students got it.

In later  years, I developed my own Swiftian approaches in teaching business students, to suggest that while capitalism is a lovely system, it’s not a universally beneficial or even suitable mode of evaluation for all life’s activities.

Want to make a lot of money? Crystal meth crystallizes (pun intended) many of the desirable qualities of an ideal commodity: plentiful demand, flexible supply, competitive market, and generous profit margins. What’s the problem? Social degradation? Collateral damage? The law? Doesn’t business cross those lines — indeed, redraws those lines — on a daily basis? Now who’s being naïve?

Of course, I imagine few business professors engage in such discussions. In other disciplines, and not strictly those in the liberal arts, students are encouraged to reflect upon the history and consequences of the subject matter they study, to think about what is not illuminated or revealed by traditional approaches. By contrast, many of the business students I know study in a vacuum, in which history does not exist (unless in an elective course), and business is a matter of axiomatic good.

Business faculty trot out Enron, of course, and some even discuss the global collapse of 2008. Yet, most treat these as isolated incidents and not as predictable outcomes. Perhaps if business schools offered a critical view of business history, we might never have to fear yet another cycle of boom-and-bust. Of course, if business and business schools had learned anything since the tulip craze of seventeenth-century Holland, we would likely not have undergone either Enron or 2008.

But that, as my students remind me, is history – and they didn’t sign up for a history class.

In the same building as Stormy’s office, students are taught that their only responsibility is to the bottom line. Faculty can talk at length about a datum from their research, but have no expressed opinion on issues such as predatory marketing and sales practices. The college espouses a vision of itself as a creator of nations, yet continues to express itself through clichés of business as violent and combative.

worst bossAlthough Williams may not have read Swift’s proposal, his office represents an oasis of morality, a voice in the wilderness suggesting that all might not be well with business, a suggestion of a satiric norm. And like the light-seeker in Plato’s cave analogy, he’s suffering for speaking the truth.

In other words, if we don’t keep buying stuff, somebody’s fucked.

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