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February 11, 2008


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JJ Commoner

A key element of all this .. in addition to the increased weighting and prevalence of B.Comm. and MBA curricula in the infrastructure of secondary and post-secondary education since about 15 years ... has been the introduction of spreadsheet software and the business case format (as formalizers for the analysis of efficiency and productivity) into the general landscape of knowledge work.

Once the cost accountants got their hands on spreadsheets, and began to figure out, for example, how to calculate the additional costs of a couple of dots of red ink on a black-ink business card, they then realised that they could in theory spread out onto a sheet of rows and columns the costs of "everything" and build the resulting analyses into business cases for everything, as well.

Depending upon the context of the matter at hand, over the last decade or so I have variously called this emergent capability either "the revenge of the cost accountants" or "the business-ification of everything".

JJ Commoner

And ...

I am not saying here that such information and analysis is not useful ...

... what I am saying is that by itself and as emblem of the guiding mindset, it does not offer the magic key, the silver bullet that will deliver the answers as to why, what for and how ...

It (the MBA mindset) may be a transitional or evolutionary stage in the decision-making process, providing some additional useful background when considering the whys and wherefores, as opposed to be accepted as creating the dominating factors.


I sure hope so. I'm betting on it.


Thanks, JJ, very helpful. It is not the the MBA cost accounting is unnecessary, nor that we want to be inefficient and ineffective, or discount benchmarks and results, but the mindset is one with a very clear tradition - economics, ultilitrianism, accounting, hierarichal control - and is often just not even familiar with wisdom traditions, which it tends to dismiss as soft, or touchy-feeling, thereby making a virtue out of blindness to larger concerns. The nonprofit sector matters in part because it is the carrier stratum for ideals. For it to cultivate ideals effectively and effiently is fine. For it to get lost in MBA logic and lose sight of ideals is another matter. Maybe we should just outsource human flourishing to China.

Maureen Ward Doyle

Careful with the generalizations. Plenty of MBA's pass first through the liberal arts BA. Take my class at Dartmouth, where some huge percentage went right on to business and eventually grad school in business. A BA is not enough to make one wise. No more than an MBA is enough to make one a biz whiz. As far as I'm concerned, the world would do better for the two to emerge a happily married couple.


Well put, Maureen. As major and minor premise merge in a pratical syllogism:

- Desired end
- Appropriate means
- Action to be taken

You and Jeff are pretty good examples of people whose work carries on a tradition of the arts in a businesslike way. When the technocratic or managerial training is laid on top of undergraduate training in the humanities, it is interesting to see what will sprout through the cracks in business logic. It can be difficult to bring two worlds of discourse into a deep conversation or dialectic. It took me a long time in financial services to get confortable witht the tax, legal, and financial knowledge, and then to subordinate it to the broader liberal arts perspective. In doing so, I find it gets a little lonely. The langauge of business and finance and law is spoken broadly across the organization and out there in the world, it is the lingua franca of a market-based economy. But Marcel Maus? Derrida? Bloom? Seneca? John Milton? Try bringing up those names in a business context. At best they might serve to decorate a chapter with an epigraph. The liberal arts are not the operating system, or a language you can draw on without seeming pretentious, in business - with exceptions no doubt in certain circles in which a Darmouth BA, turned Harvard MBA, sits on a Corporate Board with others similiarly trained, and that no doubt does happen in certain circles. Phlianthropic circles included.

Maureen Ward Doyle

"The liberal arts are not the operating system, or a language you can draw on without seeming pretentious"

That's an interesting question.

As long as you refrain from dropping names and quotes, and spell out your own version of so-and-so, isn't it just you (or me) speaking? I think that it's the way ideas are used not the content that makes them incompatible with certain circumstances.


Maureen, you must be moving in some pretty refined circles. I note that you tend to presuppose a working knowledge of not only French thought, but the French language, among other indicia of being a pointy-head. Your language is highly marked, in your ordinary conversation and emails, as that of a liberally educated, and highly educated, person. In the circles in which I move in business and in the South, you would be an anomaly, or a blessed relief. I mean that as a compliment. Whereas, if you were an expert in tax, management, or finance, the arcana you had mastered would count as an asset in general business circles. The more you might know about Lacan, Derrida, Roland Barthes, by contrast, the more of a laughingstock you would be among red blooded American business folk. Yes, you are welcome to read those thinkers, if you do not quote them, refer to them, allude to them, presuppose them, or imitate their style. Yes, if you can translate their views into strategies that get financial results efficiently and effectively, you could use them as a catalyst in your own thinking. But as far as their critique of technocratic reason or of readerly as opposed to writerly prose - forget it.


Phil, I think you are confusing style and preference for refinement and quality.

Wouldn't skill and refinement involve being able to speak or write for many audiences? Isn't that what Maureen is getting at? Dropping quotes and names is interesting to those of us who want to learn is desired and appreciated, but you are really bringing up those who revel in not-knowing, who make fun of someone who pursues knowledge for its own sake whether it is science and math or arts and literature.

You're a teacher, you can do better than that.


I can do better, no doubt, but we could all do better if we shared a common bibliography of philosophical and literary works. Without that, what we have in common are what the market provides, the brands, the spectacles, and public entertainment. To rule in that market based world you get an MBA, or a degree in finance or law, no matter what your undergrad degree was in. This is very different than, say, 19th century Britain whose ruling class was educated at Oxford and Cambridge in "Greats," or Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and who shared a grounding in Latin and Greek, and drew their role models from ancient history. In that world it was held that "A gentleman can pick up anything quickly." If you needed to pick up a little finance, or another language, or become a Barrister, you might, but the essential grounding was in the liberal arts and it allowed you entrance to a social class, a ruling class. I submit that today such status within a presumptive inner circle is more likely to be accorded a Harvard MBA. I believe that elite American colleges and Universities were set up on the British model, and operated that way for some time, but today a degree in subaltern studies, or critical theory, or women's issues, or gender studies, or French lit, or sociology, or world religions is good preparation for a job in a a 7/11. Or you can go on to get a professional credential. That is the quickest route to the managerial role. Hence the proliferation in nonprofit and philanthropy work of these advanced degrees with an emphasis on business and finance.

Maureen Ward Doyle

Phil, no doubt I wouldn't last a day in that world.

It's not that I don't know the world you're describing. It's precisely because I do know it that I have chosen to live in Vermont and muddle through with the work I do.

Even here, however, where there is perhaps a denser population of readers, every day isn't a conversational romp around the café table. In fact it's mostly pedestrian and boring. It's rare that during a conversation (besides with my spouse) that a name, a quote or an idea emerges -- even in this Ivy League town. People don't seem to deal in those chips. Whether it's because we no longer share a common culture, haven't developed conversational skills, harbor latent feelings of anti-intellectualism, are too preoccupied or don't have the habit, I don't know.

The books I've read, however, still play an important role -- perhaps more important -- in my every day life. The thinkers I consider the "Greats" populate a reference group I carry around in my head. I feel fortunate to spend my life with them.

Although I share your romantic attachment to the 19th C, the Canon, the Grand Tour, I don't believe for a second that my intellectual life then would have been any better than the one I lead now. Assuming I was born into the same lot (a woman in a working class, uneducated, immigrant, Irish Catholic family) what could I have hoped for?

Nor do I believe that convsersation would have been easier in the time of Socrates or Christ or Hobbes or Freud or Raymond Aaron.

The basic problem Phil is that Society -- pardon my French -- sucks. As Sartre said, "L'enfer c'est les autres."

Our only exit is to find "autres" who get our references and our jokes. I bet, thanks to the Internet, that the probability is higher now than ever. Vive le Net!


The wonderful thing about the internet is that even an unliterate slob like myself can cut and paste your Sartre to the searchbox and:

The best-known, Huis-clos (No Exit), contains the famous line "L'enfer, c'est les autres", usually translated as "Hell is other people"

The difference isn't what people know, it is their stance towards learning. People who love to learn keep doing it and they keep their minds fresh with new knowledge. The cultivate people who are the same, but know different things. No community has many of these gems, but you aren't going to find them by lamenting the fact that you live it a community of boobs. I'm guessing that the main difference is that down in Dallas, it is harder to find the poets and free thinkers because very few of them are out.

I'm with Maureen, my Irish and French peasant ancestors had no access to formal education then. I'm going to assume that those so-called gentlemen had at most a slightly higher IQ distribution than any sample you currently experience. I'm sure many of them could quote Latin and Greek to no coherent end, and bore the paint off a battleship.



These levels of wealth are interdependent. Many communities are resource-poor but health- and culture-rich, but this is only possible up to a point: at some point lack of resources will degrade health and culture. Communities that are resource-rich but don't maintain their other levels of wealth will eventually degrade their capacity to maintain their tradable wealth.

People who follow the sort of strict MBA logic you decry, are concerning themselves with only tradable wealth, and are parasitic on the health and culture of the rest of their community.

What I have been trying to point out is that the approach is objectively wrong from a systems point of view. If MBA logic cannot apprehend systems thinking, it is not even a useful tool for the business of making money. It gives you managers who can work the numbers, but don't have a clue what is going on in their organization.


Where does this rate in your valuation of culture?


In this thread we have a lot of lived intellectual history. Yes, there was a Boys Club Canon. And the Boys were WASPs. And in the US Anglophile. That tradition was still hegemonic at Yale in 1975 and, in the lit crit world, as good as dead by the time I left in 1981. It lived on at Univ of Chicago and gave us Strauss and Schmidt and Machiavelli and now the neocons and the ominous threat of the state of exception. The decency of the Old Boys is seldom praised. That tradition, built around a Canon, was exclusive, narrow, snobbish, and all that. It would have, at its height, excluded by wife, a Jew, and me an Italian Catholic. So it was made to deconstruct itself into the Brand of Us Canons, into many many sub-canons that do not talk with one another. In the process the hegemonic operating system became a Tower of Babel. The famous difference of which Derrida spoke so often. The holes between the ever shifting signs, differed, displaced, deferred and supplemented endlessly. Meanwhile, we had the "you can't manage what you can't measure" crowd getting trained at Harvard Biz School. They do have a Canon, a methodology, a regnant dogma, and they enforce their code of freedom (without political liberty necessarily) everywhere. We all work for them now, and natter on about Sarte. You want to make real money or have real power, you can stuff the Sarte and Derrida and follow Holden Karnofsky's lead, or Sean's at Tactical Philanthropy, or Lucy Bernholz's. Do not read Hard Times, Dicken's satire of utilitarianism. Read Milton Freidman and be done with it. We who are dedicated to the liberal arts blew up our tradition because it was not open and diverse enough. Now we are like computer geeks who use one of a family of operating systems whose programs do not run on each other's computers. We had a lingua franca, blew it up, and now have little coterie codes. Against that is the social capital markets absorbing all within its proliferating "bottom lines."

Antoine Möeller

How does your better half feel about the secondary schools? Anything counter to expectations? Anything constructively anomalous wiggling around?


What she sees is Holden Karnofsky. Not him personally, but the same mind set. You can't manage what you can't measure. We now have testing manadated by the No Child Left behind act. Superintendant and Principal are obsessing over test results. Vendors are hired to train teachers to teach to test. Other vendors offer statistical tools to study test results. Classes are cancelled so teachers can learn more about testing and how to beat the test. Anything, such as teaching literature or critical thinking that does not hit test results is treated as extraneous and is being curtailed. The school is becoming a factory and teaching is becoming training. The same anxiety you see in coporations, the same scurrying about to manage the numbers, now is the atmosphere among teaches, who have been deprofessionalized. So much for the liberal arts, the arts of freedom.

J. Erik Potter

I see the merging of the two worlds as a VERY good thing. Some in the business world have flourished without being grounded in liberal thinking like "community". Likewise, some NPO/NGO's have flourished without business's insistence upon measurable outcomes.

Regardless of your educational background, to effectively lead you have to inspire and engage people with varying backgrounds, personality types, and socio-economic situations.

Regardless of your educational background, making a connection with a donor has a lot more to do with getting to the heart of THEIR needs and getting inside THEIR heads.

Regardless of your educational background, your organization has to provide a service with perceived value. That perceived value will be different for everyone.

As long as your organization has a mixture of liberal minds and business minds, it can achieve a kind of balance.

Full disclosure: I hold an English BA and am currently pursuing an MBA.


J. Erik, thank you for your comment. A BA in Englihsh only took you so far? Right? You kind of make my point. Now, if you had started with an MBA, found it got you nowhere, and decided to get a Masters in English to put your career into orbit, then that would have surprised me. English degrees are for when we are young and foolish; then we get serious and take a real world credential. (I am half joking, but it does hurt to laugh.)


I may have pursued an advanced degree at some point, and probably not by going deeper into technology. As a career move it sucks, so why bother with a degree anyway. Digging books out of the dumpster as you say, and learning liberal arts the hard way from a street tutor.

Yeah, the MBA is a certain kind of a ticket and with greater currency than most degrees these days. For the rest, we have no need of more formal education. A place to work near great masters would be nice if it existed, and maybe we can create that for ourselves. On the outside, on the commons.


Gerry, thanks, teaching each other while thousands of subscribers lurk to listen in.

J. Erik Potter

I would agree with that. I was looking to expand myself (and my wallet).

Like it or not, the letters "MBA" have weight to them. At least here in the states.

The combination of disciplines is what I was looking for, and, what I think many organizations lack. Don't rely soley on one train of thought. Take the best of both worlds. Borrow from each of them. Reshape our realities of what corporate and/or social responsibility is.


I hope you paused between degrees to get a look at how the sausage is made. Nothing like real experience to get you asking the right questions during your coursework and reading. Hmmm, that might be part of why I wasn't that attracted to the MBA track. I started programming while still in high school and got a look inside early. I was lucky to have a good boss at one of my first jobs, and that showed me the difference between just some PHB and a real leader.

J. Erik Potter

Yep, over 12 years between degrees. . .you really need some distance between them to appreciate it. My two cents. . .

Jeremy Gregg

I do not necessarily think that the two are mutually exclusive... as an MBA who was previously trained in the liberal arts, and prior to that went to religious schools his entire life, I can say that hybrids do exist and can even thrive in the sector. I also think that the sector itself would thrive if it began to foster the dual development of its personnel.


Jeremy, I did not know about your MBA. You strike me as someone whose "foundations" are in the liberal arts and the gospels. On top of that you can lay the "management of means" because you are so grounded in the "vision of ends" and the flourishing of others, the colleagues and neighbors rich and poor, around Dallas Social Ministries.

The question to me is when the person gets to the microphone, and the crowd settles into their seats, and the topic is charity, do they begin, go on and end, within the language of business, finance, tax, and law. Or, do they discuss meaning and purpose and love and obligation in the languages of value, while moving at ease too in the language of means to those ends?

Yes, it should be possible to do both. But few can. Most who learn the language of means, drop the language of ends, except for purposes of hype.

A classic counter-example is your boss, Dr. Larry James. Give that man an MBA and he would still be on fire with love of his neighbor.

Maureen Ward Doyle

Phil, I have a Masters in Agribusiness Management from Arizona State University. Although the experience was at times frustrating (and humiliating, 'cause I didn't know my assets from my elbow), I found (and find) satisfaction in the realness of the biz world. Especially the very messy agro-biz world.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm happy (and feel privileged) to have also been treated to 4 years of a liberal arts education. And I continue to pursue that path on my own. I don't accept, however, your argument that the liberal arts world is somehow morally superior to the biz world.

Let's face it; the purveyors of culture (academics) play the same kinds of self-interested games as biz people. They just happen to deal in a currency you find more palatable. Derrida, for instance, spent his life simultaneously one upping and being rejected by the academic insiders. So did Bourdieu. The theories of deconstruction and social capital are the by-products of profound alienation in the not-so admirable world of academia.


No, mine was not a defense of academics, that is for sure. It was a defense of the liberal arts, or the humanities, something else again. There are many reasons I take Diogenes as my model rather than Derrida, or any other academic.

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