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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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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