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updated 3/27/2009 7:35:20 PM ET 2009-03-27T23:35:20
OPINION

Put your ear to the ground near any business school campus, and you will hear the sound of another bubble about to pop. The MBA will soon be joining equities and house titles in the museum of formerly overvalued pieces of paper.

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The problem in the short term begins, like so many other fine things these days, in the financial sector. Over the past two decades, about one-third of graduates from top business schools took jobs in finance. But banking will never be what it once was (we can only hope), and consulting — the other major consumer of MBAs — is reeling, too. Couple declining demand with the fact that at the onset of a recession, the supply of students actually rises as the prospectively unemployed look for ways to fill in gaps in their CVs, and "shorting" the MBA looks like a compelling near-term trading strategy.

The really grim news for the MBA, however, is about more than short-term trends. Isn't it just a little suspicious, after all, that the sector that showed the greatest appetite for MBAs was the most grotesquely mismanaged? In fact, the economic crisis has exposed long-standing flaws not just in the modern approach to business education but in the very idea of business education.

The truth is that the relevance of the technical training allegedly offered by the MBA was always overblown. The idea that there is some body of knowledge pertaining to business management that can be packaged up and distributed to the business universe in two-year course-lets — well, it sounded good about a century ago, when it was first conceived. Maybe it still had merit when the schools were turning out only a few thousand graduates per year. But it certainly stopped making sense well before the schools achieved their current level of production of a whopping 140,000 or so graduates per year. The empirical evidence on the contribution of the MBA to individual career performance seems to bear this out — mainly because it doesn't exist. In fact, if the relevance of an M.D. to the performance of doctors were even half as unsubstantiated, we'd probably be fantasizing about tossing a few physicians in jail, too.

The other truth helpfully revealed in the throes of the crisis is that ethics and integrity and social responsibility aren't just optional extras for good business management — unless by "management," you mean "looting." Managers don't need to be trained; they need to be educated — in the sense of "civilized." Unfortunately, a business degree isn't just irrelevant to that purpose; it's positively detrimental.

Now, to be fair, people don't behave like jerks just because they spend two years in business school. After all, as many of my business school friends have pointed out, most of the first year goes into heavy partying, and the second year is really a marathon job fair. No, for the most part, people behave like jerks because nobody stops them from doing so. The charmers at AIG walked away with multimillion-dollar second homes as a reward for exposing their institution and the entire financial system to outrageous risks because it was (so far as we know) a perfectly legal way to make money. The whizzes at Goldman Sachs hedged their supersize profits with underpriced, implicitly publicly backed insurance from AIG for the same reason.

If we ask why no one stopped these people, however, we come right back to business school. It was the market fundamentalism that dominates business school thinking that assured us that markets are self-regulating. It was the management myth — the idea that there is some specialized, teachable body of expertise that constitutes management — that confirmed the strange notion that these people were capable of regulating themselves. And it was the shareholder-value model from Business 101 that said all you need to do is load up managers with tons of stock options and they'll be sure to do the right thing. These aren't just ideas that happen to be taught at business school; these are the ideas that provide the rationale for the existence of the schools. The only semblance of a theory behind modern business education is that it purportedly produces "experts" in shareholder-value maximization who are capable of forming an ideal, self-regulating market.

It's a neat theory, of course, and pretty radical, too. But not since the fall of the Soviet Union has a system of belief woken up with so many parking tickets on its windshield.

The reality is that business school is now chiefly a community of intention. It brings together people who share certain career aspirations — for the most part, to make big bucks — and occupies their time teaching them a few technical things that they don't need to know, along with a code of conduct that says, in essence, whatever is legal is ethical; and if it makes money, it's a positive duty. It's now clear that we would have all been much better off if, instead of cloistering these people on fancy campuses with world-class golf courses, we'd have sent them off to do two years of national service.

For the benefit of beleaguered business school academics, it's worth pointing out that a world with fewer MBAs is not necessarily a world without business studies. On the contrary, once researchers dispense with the idea that they have to package their material for the purported benefit of junior managers everywhere, they could actually study business. Maybe they could even learn to criticize it. Maybe they and their students could even learn to report on it, the way that journalists used to do.

In the meantime, since the national-service idea probably isn't going to gain much traction, I suggest that it's time to go long on the humanities. Now that we've tried business with savages, perhaps it's time to give the educated a shot.

Copyright Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

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