The following is a conversation with Donald Drakeman about his recently published article, “Business Needs Humanities to Succeed,” and upcoming book chapter (both co-authored with Kendall Hack), which argue for the inclusion of humanities learning in America’s business schools.
“Prioritizing the humanities will not only help business students be more thoughtful citizens—certainly the best reason for studying them. It will make them more successful in business.” – Drakeman & Hack, Law and Liberty
“Business schools such as the Wharton School were originally founded [over a century ago] to foster character development and good citizenship by offering a liberal arts education to future corporate leaders. Courses in government, history, and moral and political philosophy play a major role in the curriculum, alongside offerings in finance, economics, and accounting.” – Donald Drakeman & Kendall Hack, “How Business Schools Can Prepare Students for 21st Century Success By Renewing their Liberal Arts Roots,” Liberal Education and Citizenship in a Self-Governing Republic. Eds. J.B. Dyer & C.C. Vassiliou (Expected Summer/Fall 2022).
Many liberal arts scholars look askance at anyone who primarily defends classic liberal education for its civic or commercial benefits; and I am sympathetic with the view that we need to keep defending classic liberal education for its intrinsic value. However, so long as we’re willing to receive generous patronage from the academic institutions that employ us, it is our responsibility to be responsive to practical considerations. We have a primary responsibility towards students, many of whom take on 6-figure debt expecting that colleges will hold up their end of the social contract by providing them with a fair shot at climbing the meritocratic ladder. Unless we are willing to give up our patronage and become renunciant monks (on our own dime), we should not shirk the civic and professional duties that constitute our academic appointments, especially if we purport to commit ourselves to living the “good,” moral life. I appreciated your article because it unapologetically considers the tangible benefits of humanities learning in business school curricula, demonstrating its promise for fostering a deeper sense of the common good among our future elites. Your chapter for our book volume forges a viable avenue for becoming more responsive to market and civic concerns without compromising the integrity of a classic liberal education.
Yet, how might curricula at business schools look if we wish to shield classics learning from market forces? If business schools establish their own curricula, even in careful consultation with scholars from the social sciences and humanities, will they not eventually negotiate character development and good citizenship out of their academic missions? Alexis de Tocqueville presciently warns us that professional studies will always have the upper hand over classics learning in a commercial democracy, as we can see for ourselves with the Wharton business school’s own failure at remaining feal to its original benefactor’s vision. To state my question more crassly, how do we prevent degrees that emphasize “Corporate Social Responsibility” or “Empathetic Leadership” from translating into little more than a facility to craft punchy slogans that affirm whatever fashionable cause consumers are shallowly committed to at any given moment?
I wish to end with a brief biographical note to explain why your work on this subject has resonated with me, and to raise a challenge I grapple with in my own research. Having been raised in a lower middle-class suburb outside of Montreal, I had the good fortune to attend an elite prep school—a privilege once possible for a second-generation Greek-Canadian by dint of coming of age prior to a prolonged period of Quantitative Easing, when the personal sacrifices of hard-working restaurant-owning parents were sufficient for gaining access to a world typically reserved for the Brahmin classes of Montreal’s anglophone community.
What I had come to value most was not the economic ladder that my privilege gave me access to, but a moral orientation to be kind, not to bully, to stand out of respect when a superior entered the room, to say grace before meals, to respect the rules of fair play in competitive sports, to constantly reflect on our privilege, and to have a healthy contempt for money, the latter of which I naively internalized having not fully absorbed Adam Smith’s warning about emulating the nobility without having arrived at nobility. I felt gifted having acquired an understanding of ‘aristocratic’ manners and honour codes, supposing that they should be distributed more widely, since being elite did not necessarily have to mean being rich, but being noble.
During my college years, I grew cognizant of the class differences between me and my former peers, and resented some of them for spending their summers in Paris writing in journals while I remained tethered to the family restaurant—a fate I share with many second-generation North Americans of Greek descent. Fortunately, my resentment tempered the contempt I had for money, and I decided to pursue what became a brief career in banking. I there witnessed the practical consequences of a banking culture on Wall Street that incentivized our elites to not be responsible in their day-to-day commercial activities. I left the industry disillusioned, thinking that the commercial elite culture I embraced was as shallow as the skin-deep manners I had come to fetishize.
However, as I immersed myself in Enlightenment political thought, I became convinced that contentious discussions triggered by the Great Recession—concerning the culture of Wall Street and the proper scope of government oversight—might be soberly illuminated by the work of a thinker who confronted in his own time, the hazards of financial speculation: Montesquieu. In writing during Europe’s transition from a feudal order towards a more liberal commercial world, Montesquieu was attuned to European nations’ new “aristocracies” and sought ways to cultivate a sense of the public good in them, as the world was abandoning the norms, customs and touchstones that gave previous generations of elites their moral bearings.
Two interrelated normative questions that guide my own work, which resurfaced after reading your chapter are “how do we inspire a sense of social responsibility among current-day elites whose moral bearings and touchstones differ from our elites of yesteryear?” and “how can we adapt Montesquieu’s theory of social responsibility to a more democratized world? That is, how can we reconstruct an ethos of moral and civic responsibility—as Mr. Wharton had envisioned for America’s Gilded Age scions—that encompasses broader demographics.
To put these comments in perspective, it may be worth noting that I am probably as close as you will find to the renunciant monks you mentioned. Like you, I quit my day job to devote myself to the life of the mind, and I am living on my own dime. That being said, my former day job (like Montesquieu’s inheritance) has provided the chance for me to focus on the life of the mind without renouncing all that much.
As a renunciant, I should be an enthusiastic supporter of the argument that the liberal arts are important for their intrinsic value. I think they do, in fact, have intrinsic value, but if we believe that studying, writing about and teaching the liberal arts should be done solely for their intrinsic value, then, as you point out, people should be willing to take nothing but intrinsic value in return — perhaps the eternal gratitude of a cash-strapped university. If we want financial consideration, we should be offering something of equivalent instrumental value to get the money we need to pay the rent.
In general, I think the arguments that people like Zena Hitz and Stefan Collini make for the intrinsic value of the humanities are genuinely heartwarming expressions of wonderful ideas conveyed in beautiful language. But, in the end, they are not reasons to get paid. Also, it seems that our colleagues who argue for the intrinsic value of the liberal arts often don’t want to argue for their instrumental value, which is a mistake. The liberal arts have important instrumental value, and we should be willing to talk about it.
You ask an interesting question about whether we might be able to construct the curricula to shield classical learning from market forces. For what it’s worth, I think that is a losing cause. Ultimately, the marketplace for ideas, as well as the marketplace for employing recent graduates, will exert its irresistible force. Our better bet is to work harder to build a market for the ideas about education that we think deserve more attention, which, I suspect, is one of the reasons for this book.
You also ask whether, even if we get the business schools to build their own liberal arts curricula, they will eventually lose sight of its real value. I think history says that they will. But it took 50 years for it to fade away the first time, and concerted efforts by people like you can remind them to stay focused on the important things.
I have not read as much of Montesquieu as I should have, but it seems to me that he and Joseph Wharton shared a common goal, and probably also shared some views of how an aristocrat should behave. It’s not clear to me that we necessarily have to have an elite class to accomplish the goals of a liberal democracy, however. But, whether we need one or not, we seem to have one, and many of them went to business school. Why not take advantage of having them all gathered in the same place for two years?”
Re: a non-elitist philosophy of social duties, I don’t see why you can’t have an ethos shared by everyone, which, at the same time, realistically deals with the fact that some may be in a better position than others to do something about it.
I quit my job in finance to read classic texts, but this is where the analogy ends between us. It is not a privilege I can enjoy on my own dime! However, I cannot complain too much about the patronage. As irritating as it is needing to appease grant committees, I imagine it is not nearly as irritating as having to appease patrons during less democratic times. Your chapter demonstrates how we can be less parasitic on a society that affords us the privilege to reflect upon the perennial wisdom contained in classic texts.
If we construct a dichotomy between the ‘untainted’ life and the fallen world to serve as our guiding principle for liberal education, we will fail to understand what is ennobling and what is dangerous about the life of action. Indeed, our role as scholars is to step out of politics and observe the machine from the outside. We need people thinking “uselessly”, questioning the prevailing doxa, and critiquing the machinery of state, but that does not mean the machine does not need to be run. The garden needs to be tended and held up by noble characters.
I agree that business schools need to seize on the opportunity to cultivate a sense of noblesse oblige among our already existing elites. Allan Bloom imparts the same advice in The Closing of the American Mind. For over two centuries, universities were designed to raise ruling class elites, so we may as well teach them the art of being people of great soul and character during the time they are passing through.
Yes, as much as a non-elitist philosophy of social duties is conceivable, we need to reconcile that end with the blunt reality that some are in a “better position than others to do something about it.”
Your response brought to mind the exchange between Socrates and Cephalus in Book I of Plato’s Republic, over the relationship between leisure and nobility of character. Prima facie, it seems like a throwaway part of the dialogue to illustrate how flimsy and impressionable a character Cephalus is compared to Socrates’s other interlocutors, adumbrating the value of dialectic in a democracy, notwithstanding the weird conclusions it may lead us to. It is easy to dismiss Cephalus as a simple placeholder for ‘doxa’. But Socrates’ challenge to Cephalus’s account of justice forces the latter to make an admission that should give readers pause. We discover that Cephalus kind of likes money because it enables him to be just. However, Socrates gets him to admit that his ability to be just with his money is related to his psychological equanimity which comes from his secure and comfortable lifestyle. There is no intrinsic value to his wealth alone, but rather, it is the fact that he inherited his wealth that enables him to be just so easily.
Plato’s aim in this part of the dialogue, as I understand him, is to attune readers to the relationship between money, reflection, and justice. Citizens such as Cephalus may not need to be as reflective as the ‘self-made’ man because one’s inherited wealth makes it easier to develop a sense of paterfamilias. That is why Cephalus exits the dialogue without much controversy nor contention. Cephalus possesses a partial understanding of justice, showing readers how a comfortable pre-political oikos puts one at peace, giving one a sense of self-reliance. His relationship with others exists in proportion to his empathy, which comes more easily because of his perceived security.
The Cephalus interchange is germane because it provokes current readers to reflect upon the modern ethos of achievement that glorifies the notion, ‘life is what one makes of it.’ Merit-based achievement is a desirable end, but an insufficient condition for justice. Justice requires that one does not associate one’s agency with the economic security achieved through sheer effort. Socrates and Cephalus agree that such people will make bad company because they constantly need to draw attention to their self-made wealth—a pithy rebuke of careerists in Plato’s own time. One is less likely to accrue a sense of “indebtedness” or responsibility towards others since that would undermine the greatness of one’s own achievement.
A question we might ask ourselves, is how do we inculcate a sense of paterfamilias among future leaders, many of whom cannot recognize their own privilege under current conditions of meritocracy within the academy, which crowd out opportunities for reflection. Daniel Markovits’ recent Alantic essay explains how the phrenetic pace of achievement within the modern academy has eclipsed education even at our most elite institutions. He takes aim at Ivy League universities that purport to undergird the principles of equal opportunity, when in reality, they are not promoting equality nor are they providing an education that produces enough reflective, civically responsible citizens. Universities are grappling with a new post-war myth, an instinct for meritocracy that transcends all ideologies, leaving people often unaware of their privileged status as elites. As universities become more meritocratic, in the crass commercial sense, our future leaders’ will fail to recognize their privilege. Like the self-made man who Plato lampoons, they will attribute their success to the sheer force of their Promethean will—an outlook that will reproduce the inequalities many of our elite universities purport to be remedying with their unprecedented efforts at producing equal outcomes.
For all its pathologies, the democratized university has afforded us the opportunity to provide an ennobling education to a student body that is more representative of America’s demographics. Your chapter compellingly presents the late 19th C Wharton Business school curriculum as an instructive model for infusing today’s professional business schools with classic liberal education.
Yet, how do we welcome upwardly mobile souls to the academy and infuse them with a sense of social responsibility, while preserving a space for “useless” contemplation, affording the leisure necessary for students to reflect upon the big questions? Such intangibles are a tough sell when a spirit of careerism and market rationality have permeated the academy, afflicting both scholars who well understand the demands of a buyer’s—publish or perish—academic job market, and students for whom university is about acing standardized tests, and curating the best possible resume, with the grandeur of working in Big Law, Tech, or finance being the principal lodestar during their four years. The fortunate ones will realize their ambitions, but without having ever been afforded the leisure to reflect upon what it means to live nobly.
The choice students from all demographics face when entering the academy, is to either follow the careerist playbook for success which affords little for quiet reflection, or to live in precarity; to achieve power without learning to empathize, or to learn to empathize without building any capacity to wield power.
How then, do we demonstrate the value of a classic liberal education to students and parents, or to social science and humanities chairs who are working within a university that allocates its resources according to the principle of money-follows students?
I agree that we need to build a market for “the ideas about education that we think deserve more attention.” Indeed, an MBA education that fosters empathy and an impulse to reflect on the meaning of the deeds and actions we perform will have practical benefits, but civil society must recognize and reward these benefits if they are to gain currency among university administrators. Influential opinion makers such as FT and Forbes etc. need to give due consideration to institutions that are feal to the principles of a classic Whartonian education for this model to remain viable over the long-term. My sense is that our elite business schools, many of which I imagine have deep ties with such opinion-makers, are well-positioned to create a market for useless contemplation and leisure: the intangible features of a liberal education that permit students to reflect upon what it means to live nobly during their proverbial paths to nobility.
You have, once again, asked many good questions for which I do not have equally good answers. But I am happy to share a few thoughts.
The first relates to the role of scholars in society. I certainly agree that, as Abraham Flexner famously put it, we need people “thinking uselessly.” My sense is that, despite the publish-or-perish pressure in the modern university, there is rarely a shortage of useless thinking in academia. But we shouldn’t be too quick to imagine that there is all that much of a connection between the liberal arts as you celebrate them, on the one hand, and the modern university, on the other.
As you point out, the all-too-visible hand of the market has made the pursuit of career success as a university professor as hard to achieve as jobs in BigLaw, tech or finance. Except for the very few who have chosen an academic field where the job description requires them to “reflect on what it means to live nobly,” modern academics need the same kind of shoulder-to-the-wheel career commitment found in the for-profit world. If they seek to learn what it means to live nobly, they too must do it on their own time.
Many of your concerns seem, at least to someone who is probably as old as Cephalus, unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. That the Ivy League universities are meritocratic and rarely live up to whatever ideals they set for themselves from time to time is certainly not new. Similarly, careerism crowding out contemplation and many other virtues has been with us at least since the Industrial Revolution, and probably long before. But it’s not clear that students must inevitably make the choice with which you wrestled, which is “to either follow the careerist playbook“ into banking “with no time for quiet reflection, or to live in precarity” as a pre-tenure academic.
Some will make that kind of all or nothing choice, but others will, at various times in their chosen careers, feel a need to reflect on the issues that Socrates raises with Cephalus – even if they don’t know that they are essentially in dialogue with an ancient Athenian philosopher. For the two of us, I think the question is what we can do to encourage them to do that kind of thinking more often and more productively.
So, perhaps alongside creative thinking about a root-and-branch renovation of the modern university curriculum, we can look for ways to point the career minded in the right direction. Returning a liberal arts foundation to business schools is the approach that Kendall Hack and I suggested in your book. Similarly a revival of jurisprudence in law schools would not only help students become more effective and thoughtful lawyers, but would also provide an exposure to philosophical materials to which they can return when they can carve out time for reflection in their busy careers.
At the undergraduate level, we can think about how to give students in the more practical majors a solid and thoughtfully assembled liberal arts experience. A great example is the minor in Constitutional Studies my colleague Phillip Muñoz launched at Notre Dame. Career-minded students choosing to major in business, engineering, or the sciences, can still be educated “in the enduring principles of Constitutional government and ideas and institutions of a free society.”
In terms of creating a broader market for “useless contemplation and leisure,” your suggestion of getting opinion leaders such as the Financial Times to be supportive will undoubtedly be helpful. But, for your plans to succeed, you will need opinion followers as well. It seems to me that the social media and video game industries have demonstrated that it is possible to get people to make impressively large commitments of time to thinking about things that have little or no usefulness for their careers. Now what you need to do is figure out how to get them to devote some of that time to thinking about the meaning of life and work, or perhaps, as a start, to sample the vast resources available on the Internet for engaging with classic texts.
Finally, I am very grateful for this opportunity to join with you in a fascinating dialogue on the importance of the liberal arts for modern society. If nothing else, I hope it has inspired you to conclude, as your Greek forebear and fellow philosopher Socrates said to Cephalus, “I enjoy talking with the very aged.”
Constantine Vassiliou is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Houston. He is co-editor of the new book, Liberal Education and Citizenship in a Self-Governing Republic, Forthcoming Fall 2022.
Donald Drakeman is Distinguished Research Professor in the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government at the University of Notre Dame, and a Fellow in Health Management at the University of Cambridge.