It’s been an interesting few months to be a student at business school. Our lecturers have been describing the recent series of bank collapses, credit tightening and government-funded bailouts as “unprecedented”. Certainly none of them have seen anything like it in their lifetime.
Next year, half of the textbooks will have to be rewritten. A lot of the companies used in their case studies have, quite literally, disappeared.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether business schools are to blame for the current crisis. At Kellogg, Wharton and INSEAD, future business leaders are taught powerful strategic and financial tools that may drive progress and prosperity for large numbers of people. But there is little instruction in the ethical or spiritual roots needed to wield these knowledge and skill with prudence and humanity.
The school I’m attending isn’t quite as high-powered as Harvard or HEC. But it still receives 1200 applications a year for 90 places on its MBA programe. People are willing to pay large amounts of money for the skills and reputation an MBA can bring – whether their goal is personal enrichment, professional fulfilment or a desire to help society function better. I think for most of my classmates, our motivations are a genuine mixture of all these factors.
Sao Paulo Stock Market. Image by rednuht
There is a danger however that business schools, (by their very nature of being “schools”), can turn management into a hard science – providing templates, techniques and tactics that forget that business is a very human enterprise. The apparently immutable rules of Capitalism seem not to recognise that at the centre of the whole abstract system is the weakest link – Us. Humble humans with limited intellects driven by Greed and Fear, and perhaps occasionally by Compassion.
NPR’s Speaking of Faith is running a series of programmes called Repossessing Virtue, examining spiritual and ethical questions raised by the current economic downturn. In this week’s show, an interview with Quaker educator and writer Parker Palmer, the interviewer Krista Tippett puts her finger on what is so easily forgotten in the rush for self-enrichment.
“One thing I’ve come to appreciate about spiritual traditions having a role in human life… is that they take mortality and finitude and frailty seriously and assume that …. those things are part of life. Our culture and our economy colluded … in recent years in this illusion that things could just get better and better – that you could be safe from need.”
– Krista Tippett
I finished with business school late next year. I hope that I and my classmates will remember that while business, industry and commerce can (and must) be a powerful force for good in the world, we must be careful not forget our own humility and frailty.