Wednesday, October 13, 2010

MBA thinking , gestalt and the death of humanities

The following comes from Stanley Fish:

What he didn’t know at the time is that it had already happened, on Oct. 1, when George M. Philip, president of SUNY Albany, announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs were getting the axe.

For someone of my vintage the elimination of French was the shocker. In the 1960s and ’70s, French departments were the location of much of the intellectual energy. Faculty and students in other disciplines looked to French philosophers and critics for inspiration; the latest thing from Paris was instantly devoured and made the subject of conferences. Spanish was then the outlier, a discipline considered stodgy and uninteresting.

Now Spanish is the only safe department to be in. Russian’s stock has gone down, one presumes, because in recent years the focus of our political (and to some extent cultural) attention has shifted from Russia to China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq. Classics has been on the endangered species list for decades. As for theater, the first thing to go in a regime of bottom-line efficiency are the plays.

And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities — which do not earn their keep and often draw the ire of a public suspicious of what humanities teachers do in the classroom — and leave standing programs that have a more obvious relationship to a state’s economic prosperity and produce results the man or woman in the street can recognize and appreciate. (What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, “What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?” Nothing.)

President Philip cites as one justification for his action the fact “that there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.” Of course, in a bygone time seats in those programs’ classes would have been filled by students who were meeting quite specific distribution requirements; you remember, two advanced language courses, one course in American lit and another in British lit, and so on.

Those requirements have largely gone away. SUNY Albany does have general education requirements, but so many courses fulfill them — any one of dozens will meet your humanities requirement — that they are hardly a constraint at all, something the Web site acknowledges and even underlines with pride. This has happened in part because progressive academics have argued that traditional disciplinary departments were relics from the past kept artificially alive by outmoded requirements.

Perhaps this is being unfair to MBAs (God knows there are plenty of examples elsewhere), but there's a certain misguided kind of thinking that's common in business school graduates, an approach to complex problems that fetishizes metrics yet takes a dangerously naive approach to numbers. Factors that are difficult to quantify are casually dismissed. Synergy is a heavy-rotation buzzword but simplistic reductionism is the actual default.

New Coke was a notorious example of metric-driven thinking. The metric here was a taste-test score, a well-defined scalar that seemed to measure the nebulous concept of appeal. The executives were so pleased to have an actual number that they put one of the world's most popular and profitable brands at risk in an effort to optimize that metric.

What they overlooked was the need to look at every successful product, institution or organization as a gestalt where the success is a function of the whole.

I am certain president Philip can point to extensive cost benefit analyses justifying the school's decision. I am also certain that these analyses rely almost entirely on easy-to-measure quantities and short-term projections and largely (if not completely) ignore important factors that are more difficult to deal with.

The American university system has been a tremendous success over the past century or so and a major part of that success has been the rich and diverse intellectual gene pool that universities offered. It would be next to impossible to quantify the value of that gene pool but it's safe to say that narrowing it will come with hidden costs.

No comments:

Post a Comment