As I write this, the number one most e-mailed business story at the NY Times Online is Lane Wallace’s piece about changing curriculum at business schools. The title of the feature is “Multicultural Critical Theory, At Business School?” a question whose answer is apparently “No” as there’s no mention of any such thing in the actual article. Instead, some business schools are adding what they’re calling “critical thinking.” This isn’t critical thought like Foucault or Adorno, it’s critical thinking as used in the title of my 10th grade English class. The meaning of this phrase shakes out to something like “thinking for real,” “thinking hard” or “really thinking,” but Wallace defines it as “[H]ow to imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives.” Why are some b-schools (around 25 percent according to the article) making their curricula more like my high school English class?
[E]ven before the financial upheaval last year, business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market were beginning to realize the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines. The financial crisis underscored those concerns — at business schools and in the business world itself.
The implicit logic of a paragraph like this is that the financial crisis was a result of unimaginative thinking on the part of the business world. The discursive value of this narrative is that business schools (and the professionals they create) can be responsible organs of society if they think a little more like anthropology majors. The story the Times is pitching to its intellectual readership is that the financial industry screwed up by thinking like business majors instead of liberal arts majors. They’re sorry and they’re working innovatively to fix the problem.
The argument steadily devolves into marketing-speak and it makes this reader wonder if Wallace thought about the fact that the people she interviewed teach classes on how to sell shit. An MBA is a commodity with a flagging market, which means its time for a new branding strategy. The most infuriating part is the language the business professors use:
“I think there’s a feeling that people need to sharpen their thinking skills, whether it’s questioning assumptions, or looking at problems from multiple points of view,” says David A. Garvin, a Harvard Business School professor
John J. Fernandes, president and C.E.O. of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, estimates that only about 25 percent of association-accredited schools are making significant curriculum changes focused on what he calls “the creation of more sustainable leaders.” But he expects that to reach 75 percent in 10 years.
Professor Garvin of Harvard agrees, saying that there is “an imperative for change.” “At this point,” he said, “the forces for change are real, and the need for change is real, and the blueprints are already in process.”
The word ‘innovation’ appears in the article seven time. ‘Perspective’ appears modified by “global,” “multidisciplinary,” “many” and “multiple” – the last of which also modifies the perspective synonyms “points of view,” “frameworks,” and “lenses.” I have no idea what of this means in terms of the practice of business, but Wallace wrote it seven different ways in one article. The term “financial innovations” refers to ways of creating and marketing new securities – the same practice that gave birth to the crisis. It is insulting that the MBA factories can’t think of a better way to justify their existence than to use the same exact meaning-challenged word.
The problem with this story is that the financial crisis resulted from b-school graduates who had too much imagination. The system of securitization that investors used to make billions in retrospect verges on super villain status in its horrific intricacy. They imagined an entire fucking economy. Some graduates at Goldman Sachs were so innovative that they hedged their bets with an investment in the Democratic party which turned out to be a brilliant, if dastardly, move. The last thing we need is more creative investment bankers.
Part of the apologia is the rhetoric of social responsibility,
“If I’m going to really launch you on a career or path where you can make a big impact in the world,” explains the school’s dean, Garth Saloner, “you have to be able to think critically and analytically about the big problems in the world.”
Mr. Saloner says Stanford wants its business students to develop “a lens that brings some kind of principled set of scales to the problem.” In other words, he says, students need to learn to ask themselves, “In whose interest am I making the decision?”
If the students are making those decisions on behalf of a publicly traded company, then the answer is, by law, the shareholders. All the critical analysis in the world does not change the incentive structure of America’s finance markets.
Both of these graphs come from the Federal Reserve. The finance industry is based and debt; sustainable finance is a contradiction in terms. What we need is fewer b-school graduates competing to see who can design the most innovative financial products. A tax on financial transactions seems like a common-sense way to do this. We also need journalists who do not write sentences like,
That insight led Mr. Martin to begin advocating what was then a radical idea in business education: that students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions.
That’s more specific? Jesus Christ.