Just when you think you have it all together, wham, somebody puts a little crimp in your get-a-long. A recent situation had me question my abilities, and myself, so much that I lost a little sleep last night. But now it is a new day and new challenges. However, this event did provide fodder for thinking about the relationship of the Academy and the teaching of Business.
William Sullivan in his excellent book, Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, identifies the starting point for Business education in U.S. universities as 1881. Joseph Wharton, founder of the Philadelphia Quaker Steel and Nickel Company, provided a large gift to the University of Pennsylvania “to establish a new kind of school for undergraduates alongside existing departments and disciplines” (Sullivan, 2011, p. 34). His goal was “to replace the ad hoc nature of on-the-job business training with systematic cultivation of a perspective that would combine courses in the knowledge and arts of modern finance and economy with the broadening effects of the liberal arts.”
I had read this book in 2011, and am now revisiting it to ensure I am providing the best possible education for my students. Over the last few years I have been studying entrepreneurship resulting in classroom settings that were less theoretical and more practical. In other words, what do students need from a practical standpoint? However, I think I may have moved a bit too far in that direction.
I don’t want anyone to think that I am minimizing the social trusteeship associated with business education. I was trying to give the students what they would need to be successful in the real world, while maybe, minimally of course, forgetting about the original idea behind business education. “The idea was to replace the original robber barons’ swashbuckling, sometimes bloody competitive drive toward monopoly with a more civilized form of enterprise, still innovative but responsive to the needs of the company’s workers and the larger society” (Sullivan, 2011, p. 36).
Over the years, though, a tension between the Academy and Business education providers emerged. Abraham Flexner, a graduate of John Hopkins, in 1930 urged a reform in medical education that “grounded practice in scientific research,” but “sharply attacked the inclusion of business in the university. Flexner’s argument was based in an assumption that business is done for its own “advantage,” and not for a noble purpose like law, medicine, and teaching.
Flexner argued “that because business fields neither generated nor taught independent knowledge of their own, undergraduate schools of commerce or business such as those at universities like Chicago or Columbia were poor substitutes for a sound general college education and in the long run would seem likely to be of little importance even from a vocational point of view” (Flexner, 1930, p. 162).
I have wrestled with this same philosophy in my short stay in academia, and have concluded, and will argue until the day I retire, that the teaching of business within the academy is the only place it should be taught. I want to ask you a question, what is business? Merriam-Webster defines business as “the activity of making, buying, and selling goods or services. Hmm, I would say that every organization on this planet does something like that. Even a non-profit organization has to sell its services to a donor or grantor. Businesses are not just run for its own advantages, it must meet the needs of a customer. If it doesn’t then it won’t be around very long.
The relationship between the Academy and Business has unnecessarily been adversarial. In fact, business should be taught within the Academy. However, the academy must recognize that Business must be both theoretical and practical. Obviously accounting, finance, and management have very practical applications, but there is also a theoretical side, which is what Business educators need to remember.
Instead of fighting one another, lets leverage the relationship between the Academy and Business educators to create opportunities for students to have the tools they need to succeed in running the organizations at which they are employed. This means giving “our students” skills in writing, thinking, communicating, as well as decision-making and numbers. Teaching business within the Academy is critical for well run organizations of all types.
And that is my thought for the day!