A Simple Fix For the M.B.A.


Employers tend to complain that the graduates of American universities are skilled in solving particular problems but “often miss the big picture.” This complaint rings true for colleges graduates in general these days, but it’s an even larger issue for M.B.A. students, who hope to ultimately ascend to leadership positions in a wide array of businesses. Accordingly, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, M.B.A. programs are beginning to introduce philosophy into their curricula.

One example:  A course in “Nobel Thinking,” which exposes students to world-changing ideas generated by members of our cognitive elite.  The course is taught by a professor of economics and discusses transformative economic ideas like “adverse selection.” It seems, however, that only an economist could think that an insight into “what happens when buyers and sellers have access to different information” changed the world.   Nobel-winning economists do, in fact, have big-picture abstract thoughts.  But they shouldn’t be confused with the thoughts of political or corporate leaders.  Adam Smith and Karl Marx–less technical than political economists–did have thoughts that changed the world.  But they didn’t win Nobel Prizes and so don’t show up in the course.

A liberally educated person thinks here of Socrates’s criticism of the sophists, who thought of all education as technical, as ways of acquiring wealth and power.  Socrates argues that no one in a real position of leadership can succeed if he or she thinks that low.  The “utility maximizer” of the sophists and today’s economists is really an abstraction.  There’s no real person who consistently thinks and acts that way.  Real persons are families, friends, citizens, creatures, and responsible leaders, in addition to being productive individuals.

So the Socratic injunction to know yourself is really about thinking less abstractly and more concretely or personally.  One management professor, seemingly in this spirit, gave her students “a nonstop, 14-day discovery of yourself.”  The take-away for the students, however, was the irreducible variety of interpretations and “palpable anxiety” in the face of ambiguity.  They appeared not to have made the progress described by Plato in Socratic dialogues toward discovering “who I am and what I’m supposed to do.”  Without such personal progress, the best way to take out the anxiety of ambiguity is to lose oneself in merely technical goals.

It may well take more than 14 days to discover oneself.  And a whirlwind tour of art, fiction, and meditation can’t make up for deep deficiencies in one’s upbringing and education. That tour seems to leave the impression that we’re all detached tourists in a multicultural world that offers no solid moral or intellectual guidance.

Big ideas and self-knowledge can’t really be effective add-ons to M.B.A. programs.  But who can deny that leaders who hope to be more than “specialists without spirit” need them?

There’s an obvious solution. M.B.A. programs should only accept students who have flourished in excellent and relatively traditional “humanities” majors such as literature, philosophy, or political science.  They should not require that their students have taken any business courses at all.  That technical training is what the M.B.A. is for.

Not only that, M.B.A. programs should do what they can to encourage undergraduate programs to focus on “the leadership virtues” such as generosity, magnanimity, and prudence, as well as “the service virtues” such as charity and compassion.  There is, of course, no substitute for actually doing the leisurely reading in philosophical, religious, and literary masterpieces required to pick up the habits of genuine reflection.

The last presidential campaign was graced by two candidates who spoke eloquently and had an admirable sense of personal responsibility of a leader.  Mitt Romney had an undergraduate literature major, which was an indispensable prelude to his acquisition of the professional M.B.A. and law degrees.  Barack Obama had excellent undergraduate instruction in political philosophy and literature (he knows all about T.S. Eliot!) at Occidental and Columbia as an indispensable prelude to his law degree.

Undergraduate business degrees devote too much time to PowerPoint presentations, collaborative projects, and narrowly technical problem solving. They seem to do everything they can to divert the student from thinking about himself or herself as a particular person.  They’re not about cultivating the souls of leaders.  And that lack of cultivation, it’s pretty darn clear, can’t be remedied “at the M.B.A. level.”

There’s a simple remedy for the struggle M.B.A. programs have in getting students to think big yet personally and beyond “the bottom line”:  a rather old-fashioned undergraduate liberal arts education.  And recovering the proper relationship between liberal and technical education for emerging leaders is one way among many of thinking clearly again about what undergraduate education is for.

(Photo: Harvard Business School. Credit: BostInno.)

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

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