James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teaching how not to think

The biggest laugh of my week came from the front page of the New York Times Sunday (1/10) business section.

No kidding.

At the bottom of the page was the beginning of a rather long story about how some business schools are beginning to change their curricula to incorporate – prepare yourself for this – lessons in critical thinking!

Times writer Lane Wallace began with a breathless description of how a decade ago Roger Martin, then the new dean of Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, had a “Eureka moment” when he realized that the highly successful principal of a local elementary school and a hotshot lawyer tied to investment banking used essentially the same thought process in their jobs.

They both “thrived by thinking through clashing priorities and potential options, rather than hewing to any pre-planned strategy,” Wallace gushed.

The great moment led Martin to a conclusion that was, at the time, a revolutionary concept in the world of educating the world's future corporate leaders.

That conclusion, getting serious broader attention only since the dumbest guys in the room (my phrasing, not the admiring Mr. Wallace's) brought us to the brink of economic collapse, is “a feeling that people need to sharpen their thinking skills, whether it's questioning assumptions or looking at problems from multiple points of view,” in the words of David A. Garvin, a Harvard Business School professor who co-wrote a book on “Rethinking the M.B.A.: Business Education at a Crossroads.”

So help me, I'm not making this up. You can find it in the gray pages of the mighty New York Times.

The article went on to say that some business educators are seriously considering that elements of a liberal arts education might be good for their students – notably the parts of such an education that lead people to think about the situations with which they are faced and consider a variety of possibilities for explaining and dealing with those situations. Why, it is suggested, one might even question the usual, clear corporate roadmap for dealing with every and any question.


A few of the educators are even talking about “understanding cultural contexts,” said reporter Wallace. Well, that is, the folks at Stanford's graduate business school are talking about that. Some.

A bit more than half way through his report, however, Wallace admitted that such thoughts “are far from universal” among business educators. The sturdy people at the University of Chicago, for example, ain't havin' any of that there touchy-feely stuff; they're sticking to the straight and narrow: crunch the numbers and act according to corporate guidelines and never mind about putting things in context and examining potentially different ways of acting.

Wallace then quoted a couple of sources who suggested that no more than 25 percent of accredited business schools actually are considering different ways of looking at business, themselves and the world. And from further descriptions, it appears that there's something of a hitch in the thinking of those in the minority of schools actually making or proposing some changes.

The writer of the article didn't describe it as a hitch, however. I do. And it is this: Rather than actually trying to increase the critical thinking skills of their students, the schools “open to change” are trying to devise a new formula to replace the present ones. They call it “design thinking” and they've begun classes in it.

It's hysterical. You gotta laugh. No other way to avoid crying.

Beginning more than 35 years ago, while I was a full-time business and economics writer, dealing daily with the top levels of American corporate management and often with the supposedly great thinkers among America's economists, I began to complain to my colleagues about the terrible intellectual rigidity and lack of moral base I regularly encountered among the growing number of corporate leaders who held advanced business degrees.

It wasn't long before I started predicting that MBA programs – beginning with that of Harvard, the model for all the others in this country – would bring this country and it's economy to ruin or to a new form of corporate-led facism, or both.

My colleagues responded that while they also saw problems brewing, I was exaggerating the dangers. They didn't see what I thought I saw: a major cultural shift toward absolute amorality in business.

That shift should now be apparent to everyone. Don't try to hold your breath until the corporate world begins to move back toward some level of ethical behavior.