The heart of good business

The arts inject ethics and creativity into the MBA curriculum, argues Stefano Harney; their demise would be disastrous

November 18, 2010

A market in higher education; students as consumers; mergers and acquisitions among universities; and a coalition government looking to the private sector to save the day. Surely the arts and humanities should be looking to business schools to lead them out of the crisis, just as business will rescue the British economy from recession? Business schools have experience in metrics measuring research, performance management of staff and self-styled "chief executive officers" leading them. Their business model has triumphed, charging fees the market will bear, winning contracts from the private sector and exporting MBAs globally.

But nothing could be further from the truth. This is a false dawn for business schools, and a looming disaster for the discipline of business and management.

As pedagogical debates in the business schools since the financial crisis show, it is not the humanities that need to turn to the business schools, but the business schools that are seeking out the humanities in an effort to inspire an ethical education and generate originality and boldness of thought.

Mark Taylor, the dean of Warwick Business School, wants to hire a creative writer in residence and start a theatre company in the school. Roger Martin, the dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman Business School, speaks of his flagship degree as a "liberal arts MBA". The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has launched the Business, Entrepreneurship and Liberal Learning project to ensure business students get the full benefit of a liberal-arts education, and Madrid's IE Business School insists that all students read novels as part of the curriculum.

Indeed, in my own business school at Queen Mary, University of London, first-year undergraduates read E.P. Thompson and C.L.R. James, listen to recordings of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Allen Ginsberg reciting their poetry, and view works by Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili. The idea is to offer students the most challenging examples of critical and ethical thinking, and these are to be found in the arts and humanities. The denuding of these subjects would cut us off at the source and starve us of the material we need for our teaching. The unfolding tragedy of the humanities is also our tragedy. But worse than this, the disaster facing the humanities is a threat to the very existence of our discipline as an academic subject.

At the heart of the discipline of business and management is a contradiction that keeps the subject alive. This is a contradiction every student recognises but too many business-school scholars will not confront.

Most undergraduates are already aware, often from their own work experience, that while business welcomes some ethics, creativity and free speech, there are limits. Businesses are not democracies, and more than a few are autocracies. If you say something the boss does not like, he can fire you. No amount of talk about consumer rights or stakeholder involvement can obviate that basic fact.

This anti-democratic kernel in the object of study has an unsettling effect on business-school scholarship as it tries to honour the university traditions of free speech, creativity and open enquiry while influencing private enterprise.

The contradiction this produces allows critical voices to emerge and intervene, perhaps through a scholarly critique as in the critical management studies movement, or the current advocacy for increasing the humanities component of the business-school curriculum.

If many universities now cease to offer robust humanities, arts and social science teaching while taking on the business model of the private sector, the business schools may find the movement between business enterprises and the academy much easier to navigate. At the same time, the space allowing some business scholars to remind the discipline of the contradiction between free speech and the realities of power in the workplace will diminish. The discipline would become just an elaborate consultancy.

That is a bleak prospect for the subject and a tragic one for our students.

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