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.


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!


Googling towards Bethlehem

“What do you think happened to that plane?” a friend asked me. I knew she was talking about the missing Malaysian airliner that has dominated the news.

“It crashed.” I felt I was stating the obvious.

“No, I mean, what do you think really happened to it?”

This friend is otherwise entirely sensible and intelligent. Her question – with its sense that something beyond the obvious must have happened to that plane – made me think. After all, hadn’t all the networks asked the same question repeatedly?

And what answers did they offer? Miniature black holes, Islamo-extremo-terrorism, hijacking, stairways to heaven, alien abduction, all presented with impressive gravitas.

Clearly something out of the ordinary happened: planes don’t fall out of the sky every day. (Well, not quite every day.) Why did the discussion get so crazy so quickly?

We all know the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” How about this update: “A little information is a dangerous thing.”

No, wait. If anything, we’ve got access to more information than ever before. But, what does that mean for us?

In the past few years, I’ve tried to explain to my students the difference between information (data connected by context) and knowledge (information analyzed, criticized, interpreted, internalized, applied, and otherwise subjected to intellectual forces). They don’t get it. In some cases, they explicitly refuse to get it. “Why should I learn that?” more than one has said. “I’ll just Google it if I need to know it.”

What can we learn from Google? I just asked Google some questions and learned some interesting information:

So, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Information, however, is different from knowledge.

Information demands we do something with it – examine it, analyze it, even reject it. Otherwise, we risk being overwhelmed by it.

And these days, we’re drowning in a sea of information. In the absence of knowledge, a lot of unexamined information is even more dangerous than ignorance.