When managerial doxa becomes dogma – a UK lecturer examines the pedagogy and curriculum in business programmes and finds it wanting.
When new business students begin their programmes at a business school, welcome speeches by the director and higher-ups invite them as friends and allies to build the future of our society. They are seen as an integral part of the corporate leadership. The assumed purpose of these students’ formation is to acquire knowledge (concepts, models, theories) that can be applied in the context of business practice to bring about positive economic results. However, a decade of continuous scandals – from the 2008 crisis, Enron, the LIBOR tinkering to the suicides in 2010 at the Foxconn plant in China, and the 2015 Fundão Dam collapse in Minas Gerais, Brazil – seems to have eroded trust in business leaders, and has generated an abundant literature examining how business schools failed to instil a sense of right and wrong in their pupils. By their economic orientation and partnerships with industry and finance, business schools stand at the core of the debate on the corrosive effect of neoliberalism on higher education, which stresses how the Humboldtian culture of open intellectual enquiry has been replaced with a form of managerialism that conceives knowledge as an economic factor. Anything outside this economic valorisation does not exist for “the accountants who have taken over the academic world.”
Business schools are thus the sites where the congruence between school and business is the most pronounced.
University cultures in the West now reflect a homogeneous ideology where quantitative targets, strategic planning, performance indicators, and academic audits are privileged over intellectual inquisitiveness and the free expression of one’s vocation. While education could be expected to prepare future generations for the social and environmental challenges of the century, business schools are conceived as an assimilation-adaptation process where interrogating the established economic order is out of the question. Business schools are thus the sites where the congruence between school and business is the most pronounced. This raises the question of teaching methods that may be responsible for the crystallisation of a managerial doxa that promotes competition for pre-set financial targets against reflexivity, criticism, and innovation, thus ensuring the `coddling of the business mind.’
Through theorised practice, business instructors preach a freedom of thought backed by the freedom of enterprise and illustrated by flamboyant success stories. Yet such noble objectives are mitigated by the process of indoctrination into a system of capitalistic dogma that aims to maintain the status quo. A study among Canadian and Israeli business school lecturers is particularly telling in this regard. It found that the participants’ personal conceptions of social justice were strikingly separate and distinct from their social justice conceptions in business contexts. A participant thus could declare that social justice entails, in general, “preventing people from using their positions of power for their own benefit to the detriment of others,” while later claiming that in a business context, justice could stand for the incredible empowerment represented by a manager firing employees while remaining friends with them.
Such instances of cognitive dissonance are also at play in the signature pedagogies used in management as business studies, starting with cases or descriptions of real-world situations that are used as the instructional basis for connecting theory with practice. While management cases have supposedly evolved from purely rational and legal prototypes to embrace “dramatic tension that engages students emotionally,” their learning objective remains the development of cognitive skills. Cases represent situations that future managers are likely to encounter. Students analyse them before making decisions regarding the best course of action, and defending these decisions among peers, thus acting as budding managers. Their decision-making is based on a selection process, where relevant information, which typically concerns shareholders’ wealth, is examined, while irrelevant data that encompasses all human, social, and environmental aspects of business activity are dismissed. Cases are thus supposed to help students navigating the complexity of the real by ignoring most of its components and focusing on the essential. After students have solved their case, a simulation software is used for accreditation. Far from being neutral, such gymnastics contain the seeds of self-enforcement of the dominant ideology and maintains students in a system of beliefs erected as quasi-science through the banalisation of reflexes. Managers formed under such regimes master theoretical analysis, calculation methods, and models rather than being capable of handling concrete situations on the ground, which involve complex relationships with other humans such as employees. And so is born the dichotomy between a sad indigenous reality lived by the employees, and the abstractions of the managerial doxa based on self-glorifying rationalisations from the managers’ own practices.
Cases are thus supposed to help students navigating the complexity of the real by ignoring most of its components and focusing on the essential.
Does the introduction of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) component in the curriculum since the early 2000s mitigate these effects? Probably not, given the current domination of the shareholders’ primacy in both CSR practices and regulation. Research shows that CSR is most often adopted because of strategic reasons that have little to do with perceived social responsibilities. A quick look at current legislation shows that every CSR law decreed contains a safe-harbour provision that consolidates managers’ discretion in such areas. A perfect illustration of repressive tolerance, CSR education is more likely to perpetuate current business ideologies espousing profit and market dominance than to change them. It obscures the contradictions behind the systems of valuation that enable managerial domination and, in turn, prevents the creation of a more democratic society.
while teaching CSR, I introduced the students to the degrowth perspective on sustainable development
As a member of an academic department where technical knowledge dominates and is mostly acquired through cases, while the figure of the accountant is easily associated with delivering a true and fair view of the company’s business, I have been considering how I can improve my teaching. Last year I tried to draw inspiration from the Socratic method initially used in case law analysis, which aims at creating productive discomfort. I put into question each point of knowledge that the students are expected to accept and assimilate. So, while teaching CSR, I introduced the students to the degrowth perspective on sustainable development, and uploaded a book that provided a good overview of the topic on Moodle, the virtual learning environment we use. When dealing with the more basic elements of managerial accounting with first-year students, I invited them to question the major assumptions underlying the profit calculation methods they are supposed to learn. Since young people are often spontaneously open-minded and flexible, such an approach helps them develop their own critical spirit and to discover themselves, instead of just assimilating and adapting.
Overall, I feel that the relationship between teaching and learning is not straightforward, and that we never know how students learn (profit calculations or who they are). Yet each lecture or activity done freely offers real opposition to the managerial reduction of scientific activity. Nothing is lost as long as the freedom to teach and to research finds individuals and schools who wish to concede nothing when it comes to their vocation.
Note: We thank the author for the permission to republish this post.
Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.