Why Business Schools Seeking More Business Won’t Help Business

Defending recent moves by the Harvard Business School and others to supplement highly interactive classroom teaching with the online showcasing of star professors to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide, Karl Ulrich, vice-dean for innovation at the Wharton School, asked the New York Times:

“Would you rather watch Kenneth Branagh do ‘Henry V’ or see it at a community theater? There are going to be some instructors who become more valuable in this new world because they master the new medium. We’d rather be those guys than the people left behind…. Harvard is going to make a lot of money.”

But this official innovator is thinking too much inside the box of premises and practices that business schools inhabit, especially when they’re roaming the globe in search of… business.

Ulrich seems to think he’s answered his question about preferring Kenneth Branagh over community theaters just by having asked it. But it’s a little like asking, “Would you rather watch the Pentagon and the C.I.A. do national security, or see it done by the Taliban?”

Afghanistan has been a graveyard of empires for reasons lying far outside the boxes of most thinking in Washington. The Taliban may understand more about how to nourish and strategize national-security than we do. Similarly, elite theaters’ vitality and prospects depend on provincial audiences’ and amateur actors’ devotion to drama in communities bound together by something other than market exchange.

Mightn’t the health of economies also depend less on business and defense establishments than on citizens’ devotion to something beyond their employers’ and political leaders’ bottom lines?

Business schools can’t nourish that kind of devotion unless they teach that focusing relentlessly on improving one’s brand name, market share, and quarterly bottom line can dissolves other virtues, beliefs, social bonds, and, with them, security.

Allan Bloom claimed in his The Closing of the American Mind that business schools cast a pall over liberal education’s mission to nourish “students who are able to risk everything” on what another political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, called the humanities’ Great Conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

Bloom cast a cold eye on schools of management and communications that had “wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university…. The effect of the MBA is to corral a horde of [undergraduates] who want to get into business school and put blinders on them…,” prompting “an explosion of enrollments in economics, the pre-business major,” which he claimed cramps their intellectual and moral horizons.

His warning stung business schools, especially conservatives in them who’d assumed that he shared their free-market enthusiasms. Some deans argued that business schools’ emphasis on interactive and ethical teaching strengthens liberal society as well as business.

But online teaching reverses that emphasis. It even imperils business schools that can’t market “stars.” Markets work best by approaching individuals as self-interested consumers and investors, not by challenging them as citizens to enlarge self-interest by giving more of themselves to public purposes and civic relationships and to restraining profiteering that degrades public trust.

Business-schools needn’t care about community theaters, but they should care about a way of life whose leaders need cultivation by a liberal education that doesn’t train them to surf golden, global tides of casino-like financing and consumer marketing that dissolve society itself.

Bloom’s complaint makes sense to Rakesh Khurana, a professor of leadership development at the Harvard Business School who’s also the master of a Harvard undergraduate house and will become Dean of Harvard College in July. When I visited him at the Business School last spring, he told me that although few Harvard freshmen contemplate careers in finance or business consulting, 30 percent of Harvard graduates go into those every year.

We agreed that while business Schools’ lavish funding and imposing presence on many campuses are hard to miss, the larger society’s neoliberal premises and practices are more influential, especially when undergraduates, nervous about finding good jobs, think that they need a lot more money than, say, 40 years ago, in the same dollars, just to live decently. Bank recruiters who say their work has made them sharper and more creative reinforce misunderstandings of creativity that Bloom denounced as “impoverished” and that he and former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis have called soulless.

Khurana is looking for ways to encourage undergrads to risk more of themselves on liberal education’s challenges and promises while they still have time. Harvard faculty will be invited to join freshmen in small-group conversations “about our core educational mission and the very meaning of a liberal arts education. What is a Harvard education good for? What besides a successful career? How can a student’s four years in the College develop both mind and character?” Great, but, first, colleges like Harvard might have to break with American neoliberalism as their Puritan founders broke with the Church of England and, later, their descendants with monarchy.

Business schools, for their part, certainly can’t weave or repair civic bonds of trust and mutual obligation that keep a society whole. They can’t launch counter-cultures against society’s predatory practices, because their own logic requires turning counter-cultures into over-the-counter cultures and to profit by doing it.

Karl Ulrich’s dismissal of community theaters suggests Bloom was right about business schools. Rakesh Khurana sees this. But good luck to him and Harvard and their counterparts/competitors in figuring out how to address the challenge before our neoliberal regime unwinds completely.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.