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On business degrees and free market mysticism

| Thursday, October 2, 2014

“I don’t like to hire students who studied accounting. They tend to approach problems narrowly, as though they are clear-cut numerical issues with clear-cut, single-answer solutions. This just isn’t true.”

I was a bit surprised to hear this from a partner at a nationally recognized law firm that focused on business law. As a former philosophy major in a joint-degree program in law and Catholic Studies, I tended to see my lack of business knowledge as a liability in my job search. What this lawyer suggested, however, was that a technical or job-oriented degree could be an intellectual hindrance for those pursuing professional work.

This is evidenced in numerous studies. One by economist Michael Nieswiadomy found that the two worst degrees for law school admittance are prelaw and criminal justice, while the best are physics/math or philosophy/theology. Professionals with a Ph.D. or M.D. have been found to perform just as well in entry-level consulting positions as those with an M.B.A., and one study has found that undergraduate business majors perform more poorly in M.B.A programs than their non-business peers. This also applies to the tech industry. In 2011, Steve Jobs offered an explanation for Microsoft’s relative decline: “Microsoft never had the humanities in its DNA. Even when they saw the Mac, they couldn’t copy it well. They totally didn’t get it.”

Steve Jobs suggested companies decline when salesmen are CEOs because revenue starts to take priority over the quality of the product. Salesmen lack the broad-mindedness and multifaceted perspectives that produce thriving companies. Similarly, a student with only business knowledge is equipped with limited tools and will be unprepared to encounter the broader complexity of human problems.

This is one reason for Blessed John Henry Newman’s advocacy of liberal education. Newman writes, “All knowledge is a whole and the separate sciences parts of one.” Each discipline and area of study is but a small part of understanding the world, and each relies on the others for its completeness. The purpose of a liberal education is to understand how these parts relate to each other and to see the world through a unified and sufficiently complex lens. Thus, learning is not primarily about the attainment of tools, but rather the process of integration. The businessperson without this integration will be unable to fully encounter and respond to the complex needs, desires and visions of consumers, clients, coworkers and supervisors. He will be limited if he “never had the humanities in [his] DNA.”

The danger of the business degree is that one may come to believe that all human problems can be solved through business principles. But this isn’t true even for business problemsBusiness professor Michael Naughton has written that business schools ought to engage “students to see accounting and business problems within a larger social and cultural context.” These problems come within broader contexts that only the person with Newman’s “liberal knowledge” can truly grasp. Newman writes that a man of specialized knowledge mistakenly will come to view his own discipline as the zenith of human understanding and the source of all knowledge. In a 1996 survey on the mission and identity of Catholic business schools, one respondent said of his school’s business faculty: “If I believed in God as strongly as they do in the ‘free market,’ I would be a mystic.”

In today’s universities, business majors often become free market mystics. This mysticism causes them to lose touch with reality. They are unable to understand their human peers because they fail to comprehend motivations or measures of value unconditioned by profit maximization. They attempt to create and sell products and services to wealth-maximizers rather than human beings. They see the success of organizations like Apple, but they can’t imitate them. They don’t get it.

This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t become a mystic; it is to say that one shouldn’t become the wrong kind of mystic. In the context of Newman’s liberal education, we can see better and worse places to direct our spiritual energies. To become a mystic to one of the “separate sciences” is to worship an idol of incomplete vision. Understanding the “whole” – seeing the unity to which all knowledge directs us – may lead us to something worthy of devotion.

Mendoza’s former dean, Carolyn Woo, tells us to “ask more of business,” and this phrase exemplifies proper mysticism. As dean, Woo frequently started her day at the Grotto with the prayer: “Blessed Mother, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, today is a workday, and we all need to show up for work.” Reflecting on the success of Mendoza, she said: “I attribute our number-one ranking to the Blessed Mother.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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