Saturday, May 30, 2009

Coupling Education to the Institutions of Modern Society

In my previous post I launched a polemic against the 'corporatization' of education: by this I mean an education system whose primary goal is to supply corporations with skilled, trained employees. I am not at all against corporations, or even capitalism -- corporations are a means of pursuing the goals of a capitalist society. Capitalism, in turn, is expected (or believed) by many to be the most effective means of building and maintaining a just society that satisfies the needs of the largest proportion of the people. The jury is out on this one, but that is not the focus of this post (or even this blog). While I no quarrel with corporations per se, I am rather leery of having corporations call the shots on most or all that happens in society. If a society, culture, or nation stands or fall on primarily on the strength and stability of its corporations, that society dwells on rather shaky ground -- and we see this happening in the United States as we speak. In the US, the health of corporations has an direct, immediate, and massive bearing on all that happens in the nation.

A nation, society and culture has to be much more than one of its institutions, however large and significant it might be. I am as much against the control of a society by corporations as I am opposed to its control by the State, by Organized, Controlled Relgion, or by a Monarch or Dictator. Regardless of the nature of the institution, human will, human desires, and individual passion must reign supreme; all other institutions must be subservient to the human spirit. Institutions are tools, machines that ought to aid the Journey of Humanity rather than subvert it.

Since human tribes began to agglomerate into larger social groups, human society has experimented with despots, supreme religious heads, faceless states/communism, and with corporatism. All of them have been fraught with significant problems the moment they begin dictating terms to other social institutions and to the individual. When corporations began to design and sell music, quality suffered.

The process of 'secularizing' institutions, including education, results in removing from those institutions a sense of larger purpose. Ultimately, every individual needs to confront the question of his or her purpose in this universe. And that purpose ought to be more than merely 'flipping burgers', 'building bridges', 'increasing sales', 'reducing costs', 'introducing new products' and so on. When academic institutions strip away everything other than the mechanics of work, then the soul of education disappears. Business education was 'secularized' -- the only things that are taught in class have to do with sales, profits, operations and so on. Matters of purpose are banished from discussion because they raise uncomfortable issues that are often unanswerable in value-neutral terms. The recent meltdown and the backlash against MBAs has caused at least a few business schools to wake up. Harvard Business School is at the forefront of this new movement, if for no other reason than self preservation. Here's what the New York Times has to say:
When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.

Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.

What happened to making money?

That, of course, is still at the heart of the Harvard curriculum. But at Harvard and other top business schools, there has been an explosion of interest in ethics courses and in student activities — clubs, lectures, conferences — about personal and corporate responsibility and on how to view business as more than a money-making enterprise, but part of a large social community.

“We want to stand up and recite something out loud with our class,” said Teal Carlock, who is graduating from Harvard and has accepted a job at Genentech. “Fingers are now pointed at M.B.A.’s and we, as a class, have a real opportunity to come together and set a standard as business leaders.”

At Columbia Business School, all students must pledge to an honor code: “As a lifelong member of the Columbia Business School community, I adhere to the principles of truth, integrity, and respect. I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The code has been in place for about three years and came about after discussions between students and faculty.

In the post-Enron and post-Madoff era, the issue of ethics and corporate social responsibility has taken on greater urgency among students about to graduate. While this might easily be dismissed as a passing fancy — or simply a defensive reaction to the current business environment — business school professors say that is not the case. Rather, they say, they are seeing a generational shift away from viewing an M.B.A. as simply an on-ramp to the road to riches.

Those graduating today, they say, are far more concerned about how corporations affect the community, the lives of its workers and the environment. And business schools are responding with more courses, new centers specializing in business ethics and, in the case of Harvard, student-lead efforts to bring about a professional code of conduct for M.B.A.’s, not unlike oaths that are taken by lawyers and doctors.
“There is the feeling that we want our lives to mean something more and to run organizations for the greater good,” said Max Anderson, one of the pledge’s organizers who is about to leave Harvard and take a job at Bridgewater Associates, a money management firm.

“No one wants to have their future criticized as a place filled with unethical behaviors,” he added. “We want to learn from those mistakes, do things differently and accept our duty to lead responsibly. Realistically, we have tremendous potential to affect society for better or worse. Let’s humbly step up. We are looking out for our own interest, but also for the interest of our employees and the broader public.”
Nature has a way of reminding us that none of our institutions is greater than the fundamental purpose of our existence, the quest to discover and fulfill which must be front-and-center on every individual's agenda. And the institution of education, while providing individuals the means to earn a living, develop their skills, and realize their potentials, must not be kept from also investing in those students the motivation to find and fulfill their purpose. Those institutions and curricula that eliminate from their portfolios all those educational opportunities that are seeming unrelated to specific work skills are robbing students blind of the chance of accelerating the process of becoming human.

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