Leftist (Not Liberal) Learning for the Profession

Jason Fertig

Earlier this summer, I was fairly critical of Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, William M. Sullivan, and Jonathan R. Dolle’s Blueprint for a Better Business Curriculum. More specifically, I took issue with their definition of liberal education for Business. Thus, as I read their full work, Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession, I was hoping for deeper insight, but instead, I found more of the same.

Similar to the Chronicle article, Rethinking indentified problems with business education that I wholeheartedly support. But also akin to their article, the authors’ methodology and ideologies strongly bias their message.

Let’s dive into more detail.

Colby et al. gathered the facts for Rethinking through site visits at 10 institutions of varying sizes and missions. During these visits, they attended classes; they spoke with deans, faculty members and students; and they held focus groups to dive further into their thesis. In turn, they unearthed many realities of the business classroom – not rigorous, too career-oriented, siloed, and devoid of writing and critical thinking. It’s important to note that not all findings were negative. The authors also reported on a course in entrepreneurial thinking and a business course that uses Great Books; both were much more rigorous than most other courses.

If Colby et al. had stopped there, they could have had a nice study for an educational journal that many readers would support. Instead, the authors used the data to write a book on reforming business education that appeals only to the far left end of the political spectrum.

The most notable form of this leftism is disdain for “the market.” In several sections, Colby et al. concluded that business education is plagued with a market mindset that is too focused on laissez-faire economics. The authors also cite the 2008 U.S. financial crisis as a “teachable moment” and an event that could have been used to revise business education – to make it less profit-oriented.

But the financial crisis was not a purely industry-driven event.

Public servants (i.e. government) had their hands in that cookie jar through well intended, but flawed legislation such as the Community Reinvestment Act and socializing risk through sponsoring private-public entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The financial crisis was a teachable moment, but in failing to frame the crisis from a multiple stakeholder perspective, the authors did not practice what they preach later in their book – the need for business students to see problems through different lenses.

The section on the financial crisis is not the only time the authors make this faux pas. In the actual section where Colby et al. define what they mean by “multiple perspectives,” they state:

[In one course on social responsibility and leadership,] students come to see that a purely financial approach to an issue could miss things that and organizational behavior perspective reveals and that both approaches could, in turn, be blind to ethical issues that appear from the perspective of communities affected by the issue.

This one statement reveals several problems with Rethinking. First, it implies that students learn only a financial approach. Every school where I have taught has had business courses in Diversity and in the Environment, management/marketing textbooks that did not teach that maximizing profit is everything, and macroeconomics courses that taught the Keynesian formula in which increasing government spending increases gross domestic product.

Furthermore, this statement continues the practice of what I mentioned in my critique of the authors’ Chronicle article – they make assertions that sound good to novices. It would be splendid if the authors gave the readers a sample of a problem solution that fits their statement. For example, where are students learning that a clothing company should produce shirts in third-world sweatshops and in turn use the revenue generated to pay the executives lavish salaries instead of putting in a corporate gym for all employees?

While on the subject of a purely financial approach, what does that mean? Colby et al. use terms such as market and profit in the most simplistic sense, in addition to multiple uses of the phrase “students learn that everything is business. I prefer a more sophisticated approach – talking about the difference between using a profit as a scorecard for a business vs. a pure profit-maximization approach.

Rethinking also has an interesting take on a liberal arts approach to teaching entrepreneurship:

To support innovation, business education will have to nurture mature practical judgment that can guide knowledge-intensive enterprise equitably for social benefit as well as profit.

Some students may be interested in entrepreneurial activities in the arts or education, for example, or in topics such as the history of gender or race in new venture creation.

Starting a non-profit that serves a noble cause is wonderful; we can never have too many of those businesses. But, this drivel is one reason why those who create new ventures do not hone their craft in the ivory tower. Buying carbon credits is not the only way a business can have a positive social impact. Turning a profit enables a business to hire more people, to pay those people better, to perform research and development in products that consumers want, and to reward entrepreneurs for taking risks.

In regard to studying gender and race in entrepreneurship, that’s better suited for a dissertation. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but anyone who sees Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as white males first and innovators second is not serious about learning the realities of new venture creation.

The bias is not my only criticism of Rethinking. Because the book is based on interpreting cross-sectional case studies, there is no hard evidence of students in the surveyed schools starting a socially responsible business or making responsible ethical decisions on their jobs. Instead, the data are reported in “sounds good” mode – students perform a case study, students work in teams to assist a non-profit, students engage in discussions, etc. Students of wide-ranging ability go to college today; whenever a teacher generalizes that “my students do this,” my instincts are to ask for further clarification. In this time of adrift students, concrete examples of actual outcomes are more believable than broad generalizations.

Ultimately, it’s fine if the authors have an ideology; it’s a problem when they don’t acknowledge it. Encouraging multiple perspectives for teaching practical reasoning should not teach one view over another because “my side is right.” Saying “businesses have multiple stakeholders” or “there are many options to starting new ventures” appeals to a larger audience than “students need to learn about more than just profit” or “look at how wonderful it is that students learn about social entrepreneurship.”

Rethinking needed more ideological balance. The thesis would have been better supported if the authors edited the book based on critical input from libertarians or from industry folks. Yet, even with my harsh criticism, much like my take on their initial article, I applaud the authors for pushing business schools to think about what they do.

But in the end, I’m still going to challenge my students to take multiple perspectives by assigning them to write essays on whether the social responsibility of a business is to earn a profit.

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