From where I sit - Creative accounting

January 12, 2012

How do you teach the humanities to MBA students without them demanding a refund on their tuition fees? And, at a time when the humanities are under threat at many universities, what is the value of such a curriculum?

I received my PhD in history from Northwestern University, with a focus on court ritual and political development under the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century. Today, I am a professor at IE University and IE Business School in Madrid, an institution that offers professional degrees (business, law and such). I teach a variety of humanities courses to both undergraduate and graduate students.

Coming from a North American background, I found this a very interesting classroom experience for a number of reasons. First, there is the extraordinary diversity of the student body. Before I came here, I had read that diversity was one of the institution's real strengths. This, of course, sounds like the usual pablum offered up by any number of university brochures, but the reality has more than lived up to the billing. The range of both nationalities and, in our graduate classes, life experiences is exceptional. From a pedagogical perspective, this has been intriguing because, in a class where every student is "international", no student is foreign. As a result, no one cultural viewpoint dominates.

Second, at the business school I have had the opportunity to develop a core humanities class called Creative Management Thinking for our international MBA programme. This journey from medieval Burgundy to the modern business classroom has been an interesting challenge.

When I was asked to design a humanities core course for the MBA programme, I discovered that there was no obvious precedent. There are plenty of examples of importing humanities into business curricula, such as ethics, or business and economic history. But such classes tend to be offered as electives, implying that their value is not central to the underlying goals of the programme. How can a humanities course be designed that is both comprehensible to professional degree-seekers and also integrated into the fundamental pedagogical aims of the broader programme?

There is no precise blueprint for achieving this, but one thing that is essential is to separate methodology from discipline. I do not walk into my MBA classroom to tell the students about late medieval European history. Instead, I have adapted the analytical tools that I learned and use as a historian - how to assess evidence, how to construct arguments, how to read events and interpret phenomena - to inflect differently the way in which MBA students speak about management, the economy and society.

Finally, it is worth contextualising this experience within the lively debates that are occurring (albeit separately) about both the future of the humanities within the academy and the pedagogical diversity and intent of MBA programmes. With the chorus of "quo vadis" coming from funding-deprived humanities departments and a recognition (especially after the financial meltdown of 2008) that MBA education plays a critical role in determining the character of business practices, the potential fusion of the humanities and MBA programmes could not be more timely.

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to help explore, in a wonderfully diverse setting, what this fusion can look like.

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