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Davidson '14: On undergraduate business education


I hold the unworthy distinction of being the only current Brown undergraduate, at least to my knowledge, to have previously been enrolled in a certain one of the nation's most renowned business schools.

With this in mind, I would like to voice my qualms with undergraduate business education.

To begin, the most striking aspect of this business education is its completely distinct set of academic ambitions and values. The coursework, saturated with the alluring teleology of pre-professionalism, has an entirely different modus operandi from the liberal arts education model. 

Yet the degree to which the courses are myopic in their single-minded focus on the propagation of a narrow worldview is astoundingly unnecessary. This education contains a heavy component of propagandizing. For example, management courses, with their emphasis on hackneyed gestures and empty rhetoric, miss the point of what it means to lead. Instead, it too often rewards ingratiating behavior, sycophancy and groupthink over critical thought and willingness to voice unpopular opinions. This generates an ethos of conformity, academic arrogance and an inability to question the prevailing culture of business.

The curricula of business schools are misdirected and ill-defined. The lack of a standard idea about what constitutes such topics as management and marketing creates a paucity of universalizing academic standards. Precisely what constitutes the science of "leadership" is necessarily vague. This ambitious, if not utopian, tradition stems from the teachings and over-hyped practices of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of so-called "scientific management." 

Furthermore, the specialized knowledge acquired in many standard business courses lacks staying power. In a notable concession, the president of the famed undergraduate business school Babson College argues that due to the short-term obsolescence of the knowledge gained in most business school subjects, students would be far better off gaining employable skills, like writing, in a history or philosophy course.

Nonetheless, in business education the creed of pre-professionalism establishes itself as the exclusive source of academic legitimacy. The byproduct of this is the tacit condoning of a style of anti-intellectualism that devalues the humanities and the hard sciences.

Now to address the classic counterarguments. For those who say that business school is either practical-minded — due to its location in the so-called "real world" — or a good return on investment, consider the following arguments.

First, the statistics don't add up. While certain elite business schools do see a large number of recruited students, this recruitment is readily available to non-business students. Furthermore, in a recent national survey, top employers made clear that writing skills and a critical mind are far more enticing than Microsoft Excel expertise. While business education advertises to students a competitive advantage in highly sought-after fields like investment banking, this advantage is largely illusory. Many schools claim that they teach the tools of trade but almost of all of theses tools are acquired on the job. This may be why, nationally, a stunning 45 percent of business graduates return to their nest egg upon graduation.

Second, business education couldn't be farther from the vaunted "real world."  Business education lives in a neoliberal fantasy world wherein employment is a faceless cost to be minimized. If you are looking for the "real world," perhaps history or physics might be for you.

On a separate note, I would like to make crystal clear the difference between the study of economics and the study of business. Economics is a rigorous path of study and is worthy of agnostic respect. Too often, though, business education treats economics as a means to an end and glibly casts off any attempt by the economist to embrace complexity and uncertainty.

Lastly, the most devastating fact about business education is the range in quality it hides. While it is true that students at the big-name, ‘elite' business schools work diligently, the very existence of elite business schools gives cover to all business education for undergraduates, regardless of the rigor of the program. Many business school professors readily admit that their students conceive of business school as the easiest path through undergraduate education. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, business majors spend less time studying outside of class than students of any other major. 

Of course, there are worthwhile skills to be picked up in business education. A working knowledge of finance lingo, an understanding of accounting and an appreciation of marketing savvy are all certainly useful. Nonetheless, there is no reason why these skills cannot be gained elsewhere.

Currently, Brown is one of two Ivy League schools without a dedicated business school. Brown's intellectual and academic life is better off for this.

That said, the dangerous truth is that business programs tend to be cost savers for universities due to their generally large class size and lack of need for teaching assistants for grading due to the scarcity of graded writing assignments, among several other factors. With this in mind, it is important that Brown students keep the value of a critical education firmly in mind despite the ambient rhetoric favoring the alleged safety of airing on the side of pre-professionalism.

For those who say that business school is just not for me personally and that I should reserve judgment, I reject this. They tell me that I am judging business school within a framework it consciously rejects. I agree. Yet I oppose their academic relativism as not just misguided but also indirectly deleterious, for it provides a safe haven to the uncritical mentality intrinsic to current business education.



Houston Davidson '14 learned all there is to know about leadership by watching Apollo 13 in Management 100. 



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