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Against Mendoza: A Nietzschean critique

| Thursday, March 24, 2022

Founded in 1921, the Mendoza College of Business earned its place in our Catholic university by claiming to marry business and ethics. Its slogan, “Grow the good in business,” aims to differentiate Mendoza from other schools which focus purely on profit. On the surface, it’s a laudable enterprise.

But who is really in charge here? Can Catholicism really dictate business or is it the other way around? The University has never truly grappled with this question. For example, Catholic Scripture and Tradition are rife with condemnations of wealth and secular goods. Meanwhile, the overwhelming status quo in business is the endless pursuit of profit. The idea seems to be that Mendoza students will somehow ignore the selfish logic inherent in everything they learn and turn out humble servants. 

In reality, most careers in business are socially irresponsible. Some jobs produce tangible goods for society, especially working-class jobs, and other jobs produce intangible goods, like artists, educators and priests. Once you look at careers in business, such as investment banking, consulting and marketing, it suddenly becomes very hard to trace the work to social good. In fact, these kinds of jobs mostly serve to perpetuate our prevailing economic order, the same one which is running our planet into the ground. Yet Mendoza claims that a business ethics class or two, plus the core curriculum, is enough to give business a Catholic spin.

Looking past these potential contradictions, Notre Dame has instead doubled down on its marketing, and to great success. Forbes, in its profile on Mendoza, highlights the college’s dedication to “foster[ing] concern for the common good.” U.S. News writes, “Integrity is the theme of the … Mendoza College of Business.” The University has built a simple yet powerful brand image for Mendoza. Mendoza is a shining city on a hill overlooking the utilitarian, pagan schools.

There’s just one small weakness in this narrative: Hardly any actual students buy it. Whether it’s cynicism about capitalism, doubts of the college’s rigor or just baseless disbelief, seemingly everyone mocks or disdains Mendoza. One popular stereotype is that all Mendoza students are white, wealthy frat-boy types who drink their four years away and then get handed a job at Goldman Sachs. Another joke is that Mendoza students can’t read, or that they only care about money. These potshots starkly contrast the idea that Mendoza students are stunning Catholic entrepreneurs.

So why hasn’t Notre Dame sold the student body on Mendoza’s brand image, like it has the rest of the world? Friedrich Nietzsche employed psychology to answer questions like this one. One concept Nietzsche helped pioneer is ressentiment — the condemnation of a superior which emerges from one’s painful recognition that they are inferior. For example, a closeted gay man might condemn loud-and-proud gay men due to his own self-hatred. Furthermore, ressentiment elevates oneself, claiming “if they’re bad, I must be good.” In this case, the closeted man might decide he is actually superior for being able to keep his secret, even though the opposite is true. 

Returning to Notre Dame, could ressentiment explain the Mendoza hatred? Well, it’s true that American culture measures worth in terms of profit. Perhaps students who are unable or unwilling to pursue business develop a sense of inferiority, which escalates into ressentiment toward Mendoza. These folks attempt to invert our culture’s hierarchy of values by condemning the very lifestyles they desire. 

Ressentiment cannot explain every single person’s attitude toward Mendoza. For example, what about the students expecting to be high-earners who still dislike the business school? It may help if I outline other critiques of Mendoza through a Nietzschean lens. I suspect that many people will resonate with the ideas, even if they have never encountered Nietzsche. 

Let’s start with Mendoza’s slogan, “Grow the good in business.” Nietzsche might call this slogan an example of slave morality, or the idea that humility and kindness are good while strength and power are evil. According to Nietzsche, slave morality is the legacy of oppressed peoples who sought to justify their lowly position using lofty terms. Over time, these moral concepts gained a life of their own across the world, even among the already-powerful.

Slave morality may feel out of place in Mendoza, one of the most prestigious business schools in the country. Yet it actually plays an extremely clever role. Calling business “good” justifies Mendoza’s presence on a Catholic campus, simultaneously obscuring that Mendoza exists so Notre Dame can be a profitable, competitive university. Mendoza brushes past the tough questions and plays into the public’s general comfort with capitalistic logic. That’s the thing about slave morality — Nietzsche thinks it’s a front for self-interest. 

Another angle of critique relates to performativity. Nietzsche argues that all humans are performers who wear different masks to fulfill their personal and social roles. Given this fact, Nietzsche encourages us to use acting as a source of joy. In contrast, Mendoza graduates tend to dedicate their life to joyless acting. Businesspeople are endlessly networking and cultivating their public image to ascend in rank, groveling to strangers for career-related rewards. They willingly put on a mask they cannot wait to remove, but rarely (or never) truly can.

Even worse than joyless acting is forgetting that one is acting altogether. Most people end up internalizing their careers to some extent, but businesspeople take it to a different level. Just take one look at a LinkedIn feed and you’ll find people who believe, for example, that ​​crunching numbers at corporate Walmart is changing the world. These people turn their job into their entire life, not just a means to an end, thus forfeiting their creative, individual powers.

Despite the cringe factor of these life-annulling acts, selling out might be worth it. If you graduate from Mendoza, you’ll likely live one of the most comfortable lives in human history. You’ll toss some spare change to charity, as Notre Dame taught you, giving you a clear conscience. 

But is working in business really the good life? In “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche calls Europe’s new businessman “an overworked slave.” He shrewdly predicts our current era.

“More and more,” Nietzsche writes, “work gets all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls itself a ‘need to recuperate’ and is starting to be ashamed of itself.” Ashamed of joy! What monsters capitalism has made of us! Even worse, capitalism’s hatred of joy has seeped into everyday culture. Our schools, homes and workplaces have become obsessed with the nihilistic worship of empty productivity. Institutions like Mendoza serve to uphold this tragic status quo.

For all of this criticism of Mendoza, other colleges have similar problems. In many ways, Mendoza is actually a microcosm of Notre Dame as a whole: wealthy, homogenous, ambitious. Perhaps the student body sees itself in Mendoza and uses the college to scapegoat its inner capitalist. The Arts & Letters major thinks, “Sure, I’m going into consulting, but I was an Anthropology major! I’m not dedicating my life to capitalism like the Mendoza students.”

It’s also worth noting that Mendoza has outliers, people who pursue business to put their families and communities first. It is comforting to know that these people exist. Nietzsche is not a fan of comfort, though. He challenges us to look at the big picture, however unpleasant, and it presents itself clearly. The Mendoza College of Business has created a slave morality to hide its selfish goals, reinforcing the socio-economic order that tortures us all. Mendoza claims that if you slave away, paying lip service to Christian morals, you’ll be handsomely rewarded in this life — and the next! If only it were that simple.

Jim Moster is a senior from Chicago majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and political science. He spends his days chasing serotonin and sleeping. For comments and inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @jimmoster on Twitter.

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

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