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.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The new Reid flap: Pure B.S.

This country is drowning in bullshit.

Please forgive the crudeness, but no other term quite conveys the necessary level of contempt for deliberate, nonsensical phoniness.

The hottest “news” story at the moment is an absurd flap over comments made two years ago by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his new apology for stating some simple, obvious facts at that time.

Reid suddenly was pilloried in the corporate media a couple of days ago for statements made during the early stages of the presidential campaign to the effect that Barack Obama might become the USA's first black president in part because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.” The stories continue to run; see the New York Times, page one, on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010, and any network or cable news show at any time, day or night.

Use of the long-outdated word Negro was pretty dumb, but other than that Reid's observations were unmistakably accurate.

We're told that Obama and Reid got together and the senator apologized to the president for his remarks and the president accepted the apology because he knows Harry is a good guy and not a racist.

If we could get a transcript of that conversation, I'm guessing that they shook their heads together over the reaction to the comments and that Obama chided Reid a little for being silly enough to say something that could be twisted by the scandal mongers, Republicans and the dimwits of the press into being racist.

It's simply, sadly fact: In this country, a really dark-skinned black man could not have been elected president. It is equally fact that Obama has no touch of black dialect unless he chooses to, and then he injects it subtly and beautifully into his speech.

I hope someone brings out a video, but it almost certainly won't happen: Some time after his election, Obama spoke to an almost entirely black audience at some large event. May have been an NAACP meeting, may have been a convention of another mostly black group. I wish I could remember the specifics, but cannot.

At any event, the speech was televised. As Obama spoke, I said to my wife: “Hey, listen. He's talking black.” Her attention had been elsewhere; she stopped, listened for just a minute and said, “Yes, he is.” And he was. The rhythm of his sentences was different, pronunciations were slightly altered, certain sounds were stretched. It was fairly subtle, but unmistakable.

For the record: I do not say these things as insult to the president. On the contrary, I rather admired how well and how easily he changed his speech, and it made perfect sense to me as one who knows quite a lot about politics – as much sense as his dropping those black-community cadences when speaking to a bunch of white guys in $5,000 suits.

Beyond that, judging from my own fairly broad circle of acquaintances and friends, and knowledge of others who are selectively flexible in their speech, I'd lay very big bucks that millions of middle class black Americans can and do exactly the same thing with their speech, depending on locale and present company at any given time.

Reid simply made a quick, clear, honest observation. That it has become a big hoohaw is pure bullshit. But then, so is about 95 percent of political discourse in this country, at least as reported in the corporate media.

Even the underpants bomber was wearing out as a point of fixation for the talking models on television “news,” and they needed something else that would help them avoid real journalism for a few days.
One other observation: Throughout my youth, in my part of the country, “Negro” was a word that acknowledged ethnicity without carrying negative connotations. It may have been used differently elsewhere, but here in the north central part of the country it was a respectful word, and so it also was on radio, television and in newspapers.

Though I have no problem with black people shifting their preference to other terms, and have shifted along with them, I think some of the complaints from younger blacks about the word Negro stem from lack of historical perspective and, frankly, from the arrogance of youth which crosses all ethnic borders: Anything of an earlier generation which is not the same as their usage and taste is stupid, ugly, etc., etc.