Johann Neem: “Abolish the Business Major”

Neem 1It is hard to argue with Western Washington University historian Johann Neem on this point.  The business major is an “anti-intellectual” degree program that should have “no place in colleges.” Why? Neem develops his thoughts in his new book What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.  In an essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Neem argues that business majors should be abolished because:

1. Business majors earn just as much money as liberal arts majors.

2. Business degrees do not teach the skills that employers value.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Ultimately, then, the reason to abandon business degrees is because college is not for anything and everything. A college graduate ought to be a different kind of person than someone who did not attend college. The issue is not just skills, but character. It is not about being for or against business, but rather about ensuring the specific kinds of education that a college degree should represent. A good college education offers access to the knowledge requisite to be a thoughtful interpreter of the world, fosters the academic skills necessary to develop meaningful interpretations on one’s own, and cultivates intellectual virtues. In other words, college is defined by its content — by the kinds of things that one ought to think about.

The business major is for students who want a college degree without a college education. The philosopher Tal Brewer has written that the very notion of business school is an “oxymoron.” The word “scholar” derives from the Greek word for leisure. Colleges are places where people step aside from the world of need — from the world of business — to engage in reflection. “Devoted to discussion and thought unfolding under its own internal demands,” a college cannot with integrity offer “training for the sort of life that has no place for such thought.” Business schooling is “a scholé of the negation of scholé.”

Business is an activity that we engage in to achieve other goods. A college graduate must be educated to think about those goods thoughtfully and critically, especially because markets are cultural institutions, shaped by what we value. But the very existence of the business major teaches students that the end of business is business. In reality, each good or service has its own distinct purposes, practices, and virtues.

Read the rest here.  Someone had to say it.

Can a Cake Business Personify Christian Values?

Cake baker

Lawrence B. Glickman teaches American history at Cornell University.  In this very interesting piece at Boston Review, he wonders why the Supreme Court continues to treat businesses as people.  And why does the Court continue to favor the rights of businesses over the rights of individual consumers and employees?

Here is a taste:

Is there a meaningful distinction between Jack Phillips, “an expert baker and devout Christian,” as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy described him, and the company he owns, Masterpiece Cakeshop, a limited-liability company? The Supreme Court’s 7–2 ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission suggests not. The New York Times called the decision—which favored Phillips’s right to refuse service for religious reasons—“narrow” because it did not rule on the broader issue of discrimination against gay men and lesbians based on rights protected by the First Amendment. However, in terms of the relationship between capital and labor, the decision was anything but narrow. The Court’s majority opinion, written by Kennedy, is remarkable for its uncanny and unproblematic conflation of Phillips, the baker, and his business, the bakery. By insisting that the key issues in the case are Phillips’s artistic expression and his religious liberty, the Court was silent on the question of how a company can possess these rights. It did so by assuming not only that corporations are people, but that the cakes made by Masterpiece Cakeshop are produced by Phillips alone, when in fact we know that the bakery has other workers.

The Court saw fit to mention Phillips’s employees only once, in a remarkable sentence written by Clarence Thomas (joined by Neil Gorsuch) concurring with the judgement of the majority but making much broader claims about the rights of businesses to handpick their customers. Seeking to show both that Phillips is a sincere Christian and that his bakery reflects Christian values, Thomas wrote, “He is not open on Sunday, he pays his employees a higher-than-average wage, and he loans them money in times of need.” The last two clauses of the sentence are meant to demonstrate that Phillips is a good and generous employer, although one might wonder why well-compensated employees would need loans from their boss in order to make ends meet. But the first part of the sentence is particularly jarring. Presumably, Thomas meant to suggest that Phillips did not open his business on Sunday. But Thomas literally wrote instead that Phillips himself “is not open on Sunday.” Since it is impossible for a person to close or be open on Sunday or any other day of the week, Thomas here marked the extent to which the Court identified Phillips with the bakery.

The significance of this sentence is enormous and not just because, for Thomas and the other justices who sided with the majority, there is no appreciable difference between the baker and his company. (In this, the Court mimicked the language of Phillips himself, who in a 2014 video for the New York Times alternated between using “we” and “I” to describe the work of the bakery.) By extension, this means that the religious views and artistic contribution of the company’s workers are irrelevant. Phillips’s employees are merely props in Thomas’s morality tale—figures who receive the boss’s Christian charity but are otherwise unmentioned and invisible. The decision renders their status as workers for Phillips’s limited-liability company morally and legally immaterial.

I am not a legal scholar, but I find the question of how the Supreme Court defines personhood to be very interesting.  Back in 2014, the American Historical Association asked me to write a response to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case.  I am not suggesting what I wrote back then applies directly to the Masterpiece case, but I will throw it out there anyway.  Here is a taste of my “‘We Hold These Truths to Be Self Evident, That All Corporations Are Created Equal“:

Ginsburg’s historical argument is a strong one. Indeed, religious liberty or the Free Exercise Clause has never been directly applied to a for-profit corporation. But this does not mean there is no precedent for considering a for-profit corporation a “person.” As the prominent American historians at Backstory have recently reminded us, the post-Civil War Supreme Court affirmed on multiple occasions that corporations (mostly railroads) are covered under the Fourteenth Amendment. Corporate personhood has a long history.

But can a corporation have religious liberty? I obviously don’t know how Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson—the great early American defenders of religious liberty—would have responded to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, but there is little doubt that they would have considered such a proposal to be very strange. For these men, religious liberty was a very personal thing. Religious liberty was meant to protect deeply held spiritual convictions that found their home in the “soul” or “conscience.” Religious liberty was an inherently Protestant concept. It stemmed from the belief that people could read the Bible for themselves and draw their own religious conclusions. It has always been a religious idea applied to individual human beings. Can a for-profit cooperation have a soul? Can it truly practice liberty of conscience?

We might also ask, as political scientist Patrick Deneen has done so brilliantly, whether a big box store such as Hobby Lobby, located in a massive shopping center constructed on a slab of asphalt at the edge of town, can be considered a person. And if it is a person, can it exercise religious liberty? What happens to a traditional and historical understanding of a person—a human being embedded in political, religious, and local communities exercising virtues such as friendship, love, duty, and citizenship—when it is defined in the context of a soulless corporate world with the primary purpose of maximizing profits?

Do Business Schools Belong in Universities?

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The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

For Miami (OH) University historian professor Steven Conn, the answer is clearly “no.”

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Conn makes his case.

Here is a taste:

It is hard to shake the conclusion that business schools have largely failed — even on their own terms, much less on other, broader social ones. For all their bold talk about training tomorrow’s business leaders, as institutions they have largely been followers. “In reviewing the course of American business education over the past fifty years,” wrote one observer, “one is struck by its almost fad-like quality.” That was in 1957. Despite their repeated emphasis on innovation and “outside the box thinking” business schools exhibit a remarkable conformity and sameness. Don’t take my word for it. That Porter and McKibbin study from 1988 found “a distressing tendency for schools to avoid the risk of being different … A ‘cookie cutter mentality’ does not seem to be too strong a term to describe the situation we encountered in a number of schools.” Finally, while honest people can disagree over whether American business is better off for having business schools, they have provided scant evidence that they have done much to transform business into something more noble than mere money-making. Indeed, by the late 20th century, they stopped pretending they could.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Problem With Majoring in Business

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To be fair, Chris Gehrz‘s post at The Pietist Schoolman is actually titled “The (Potential) Problems with Majoring in Business.”  Gerhz responds to a Chronicle of Higher Education list of the most popular majors at the nation’s 40 largest public universities.  As you might expect, Business is the most popular major at 23 of these universities and is second or third most popular at seven more.

 

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post:

…in the abstract, I don’t think that it’s a bad idea to major in business.

But I find it enormously troubling that that field is so disproportionately popular in American higher education.

First, a problem that should be familiar to any business major: at a certain point, the supply of any good or service will exceed the demand for it.

Yes, too many marketing majors can saturate the market.

At which point there’s very little that even gifted marketers can do to make attractive their college-trained, debt-laden product to employers who either need fewer employees with that training — or have recognized that the market has been overlooking other sources of the same labor (e.g., history majors who are trained to pick up field-specific skills as they go, but already have the scarce writing, research, critical thinking, interpersonal, and intercultural skills that employers claim to value above major).

Look, if you have a passion for marketing or feel a calling to management, that’s great. Business is a wonderful fit for you: you’ll enjoy and thrive in courses that will move you closer to your goals. Let me introduce you to my neighbors here at Bethel!

But that description fits only a tiny minority of 18-year olds. In my fifteen years of talking to those students and their parents, I’ve found that most are trying to make an important decision (college major) with too little information and too much anxiety. Desperate to ensure employment, they pick what seems like the most straightforward path to a job. But because their decision is only one of millions like it, they actually risk making their employment less likely.

Read the entire piece here.

Harvard Finance Professor: We Need the Humanities

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Harvard’s Mihir Desai argues that we “all lose” when Wall Street is divorced from the humanities.

Here is a taste of Carrie Sheffield’s piece on Desai at Salon:

Mihir Desai, a Harvard finance professor, has a striking discovery he’s keen to share:  The world of finance has become totally walled off from the richness of the humanities and he thinks that ought to change.

With his new book “The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return,” he has strived to open up the world of money to a wide audience through stories — “without a single equation or graph,” he put it.

Desai considers the disconnect between these two worlds a tragedy of today’s society: “We all lose when they’re divorced,” Desai said during a recent episode of “Salon Talks.” “We in finance lose because we lose our humanity, and people in humanities lose because you’re not really speaking to people anymore; you’re speaking to yourselves more and more, and you’ve got to speak to people.”

Read the entire piece here.

Business Majors Need Liberal Arts to Advance in Their Careers

Business liberal arts

Over at The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum (see our interview with him in Episode 3 The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast) explains why business majors need the liberal arts.

Here is a taste:

American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.

That presents a growing challenge to colleges and universities. Students are clamoring for degrees that will help them secure jobs in a shifting economy, but to succeed in the long term, they’ll require an education that allows them to grow, adapt, and contribute as citizens—and to build successful careers. And it’s why many schools are shaking up their curricula to ensure that undergraduate business majors receive something they may not even know they need—a rigorous liberal-arts education.

They’re trying to solve a rapidly growing problem. Almost one in five bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States is a business degree, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Education. And that may actually understate the growth of business education—it doesn’t account for undergraduate minors, nor for the students who major in economics at schools where business degrees aren’t on offer. But a panel of educators moderated by Samuelson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, emphasized the need to ensure that these degrees provide a robust education. (The panel was drawn from participants in the Aspen Undergraduate Business Education Consortium, an initiative that’s promoting the tighter integration of the liberal arts into business curricula.)

There’s good reason for their concern. Put simply, business majors seem to be graduating with some of the technical skills they’ll need to secure jobs, but without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time.

Read the rest here.

Why Historical Thinking Matters

If you still need to be convinced why the study of history is absolutely essential to American democracy, check out Mark Oppenheim‘s interview with Jim Grossman.

Oppenheim runs m/Oppenheim Associates.  He has a 30-year organizational consulting and search track record that includes managing transformation service groups for the Child Welfare Administration of New York City, Ernst & Young, Price Waterhouse, Oppenheim CMP, and the Oracle Corporation.

Grossman is Executive Director of the American Historical Association.

The business world and the world of historical thinking collide.  As they should.

If you want to hear more from Grossman, check out Episode 1 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Historical Thinking in the World of Business

Chris McNickle is a historian and the former global head of institutional business for Fidelity Worldwide Investment.  In a wonderful essay in Perspectives on History, McNickle discusses how historical thinking is a valuable asset for those in the business world.  Here is a taste of “A Historian in the World of Investments How Historical Thinking Resonates in Business“:

The typical career for a history PhD is presumed to be a university-level teaching job, but I ended up as the global head of institutional business for Fidelity Worldwide Investment. If this seems like an odd career path, it shouldn’t. As a discipline, history offers as compelling a framework for business decision making as any of the courses of study more commonly championed by those inside city skyscrapers and suburban office parks.
MBA graduates organize their thinking implicitly around case studies and spreadsheets, lawyers by way of legal constructs, and accountants according to a body of rules that must be followed in order to arrive at the right outcome. By contrast, historians frame their thinking around connections that occur over time and across multiple dimensions of human behavior. We are trained to sift through and interpret disparate facts, creating a narrative of what those facts could plausibly mean. Good historians develop an instinct for how things happen and how decisions made at one moment can affect what follows in another. It is a perspective that has inherent value in discussions of resource allocation, strategic direction, and other elements of business success.
As global head of institutional business for a firm that manages $300 billion in assets, I attended formal management and board meetings that invariably involved advance distribution of documents, often brimming with years of historic data to provide context for financial projections. No executive naively expects past trends to continue indefinitely, and so the question “What do past numbers tell us?” becomes key. What factors caused a set of results to reach the values they did? Why did they grow, and what made them shrink? Who made it happen, and what skills did they have? How do our numbers compare to those achieved by other firms during the same time in the same environment? What special or unrepeatable circumstances affected the results? What really mattered? These are the sorts of questions asked by business leaders; for historians, they should resonate loudly.
Read more about McNickle here.

So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 44

More and more leaders in the business world are seeing the value of the humanities.  Check out Tony Golsby’s Smith’s recent post,”Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities,” at the blog of the Harvard Business Review.  He identifies several things that job applicants trained in the humanities might be able to offer a company:

1.  A sensitivity to complexity and ambiguity: “Too many companies lack the scope and understanding to stop problems before they start, because their people are too focused on immediate tasks, or buried under so much data that they can’t see warning signs.”

2.  Innovation: “Humanists are trained to be creative and are uniquely adapted to leading creative teams.”  (See Steve Jobs, founder of Apple).

3.  Communication and presentation: “Liberal arts graduates are well-trained in writing and presenting, making them natural fits for marketing, training, and research…And an understanding of history is indispensable if you want to understand the broader competitive arena and global markets”

4.  Customer and employee satisfaction: “The ability to ‘get under the skin’ of customers and employees to discover their real needs and concerns demands something other than surveys, which yield superficial information. Instead, you need keen powers of observation and psychology — the stuff of poets and novelists.”  I might add historical empathy to mix here.

Golsby-Smith concludes:

What else? A person who has studied a foreign language or literature can run your overseas offices, or help with your global strategy by providing local insight or business analysis. Philosophers can help you with ethics. Historians can help you understand the past while giving you a picture of the future. (Just ask P&G’s A.G. Lafley, who once planned to be a professor in medieval and Renaissance history.)

If you want another good reason to hire from the humanities, consider this: consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain like to hire them for all the reasons I’ve described above. You can hire liberal arts graduates yourself, or you can pay through the nose for a big consulting firms to hire them to do the thinking for you.

Brooks: "What Data Can’t Do"

As a humanist I really like this David Brooks column.  He reminds us that in the business world data only goes so far.  Data does not have social capacities.  It does not understand context.  It cannot address “big problems.” And it “obscures values.”

I was reminded of this today as I talked to a history student who is a finalist for a lucrative job at a major corporation because she was able to articulate the value of a history major in the world of business.

Here is a taste of Brooks’s op-ed:

Not long ago, I was at a dinner with the chief executive of a large bank. He had just had to decide whether to pull out of Italy, given the weak economy and the prospect of a future euro crisis.

The C.E.O. had his economists project out a series of downside scenarios and calculate what they would mean for his company. But, in the end, he made his decision on the basis of values.
His bank had been in Italy for decades. He didn’t want Italians to think of the company as a fair-weather friend. He didn’t want people inside the company thinking they would cut and run when times got hard. He decided to stay in Italy and ride out any potential crisis, even with the short-term costs.
He wasn’t oblivious to data in making this decision, but ultimately, he was guided by a different way of thinking. And, of course, he was right to be. Commerce depends on trust. Trust is reciprocity coated by emotion. People and companies that behave well in tough times earn affection and self-respect that is extremely valuable, even if it is hard to capture in data.
I tell this story because it hints at the strengths and limitations of data analysis. The big novelty of this historic moment is that our lives are now mediated through data-collecting computers. In this world, data can be used to make sense of mind-bogglingly complex situations. Data can help compensate for our overconfidence in our own intuitions and can help reduce the extent to which our desires distort our perceptions.

Business Professor: Major in the Liberal Arts

Hamilton Nolan’s post at The Gawker is a little too uncharitable toward undergraduate business majors for my taste, but it does make sense.  Here is a taste:

Over in Israel, the land of truth, Haaretz reports that Shmuel Ellis—a business professor and administrator at Tel Aviv University—emailed students with a little something called a truth bomb:

Ellis said in his email that the business school recommends undecided undergraduate students choose disciplines like pure sciences, math, economics, psychology, computer science, history, literature, philosophy and architecture.
“Study of academic disciplines prepares students to think scientifically in these fields and form the foundation for advanced studies in graduate degree programs,” he said.

Lemme translate this biz-speak for all you non-biz majors out there: “Don’t major in business, major in a real field of study instead.” What is this guy, Sojourner Truth, Professor of Truth at Truth University? (Learn about who Sojourner Truth was, and what “truth” means, in real majors, like history or philosophy.)
Nevertheless, people continue to major in business. God bless em.

Why We Need Liberal Arts in the Business World

Chad Dickerson, the CEO of Etsy, has a degree in literature from a liberal arts college.  He thinks that a liberal arts education is more valuable than a math or science education.  (I am assuming that Dickinson is confusing “liberal arts” with “humanities” since both math and science are liberal arts disciplines, but this does not detract from his point).

Watch him here:

Dickerson develops his thoughts at this blog post.