The Wolf of Wharton Street
Hegel said it best that every regime plants the seeds of its own demise. The university is the regime. It now must dig up those seeds and plant better ones.
“There’s no nobility in poverty. I have been a rich man and I have been a poor man. And I choose rich every f***in’ time. Because, at least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of the limo, wearing a $2000 suit and a $40,000 gold f***in’ watch,” exclaimed the infamous Jordan Belfort.
Imagine it is 2013 and Martin Scorsese’s venture into depravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, comes into theaters. You think, “gee, I hope this film serves as a warning sign, and not the primary influence of a generation of future business leaders.” You would be considered naive to think that the film served as a barrier to promiscuity and financial corruption. Instead, it became the motivating force behind a generation of “finance bros” who will do anything to live like Jordan Belfort.
With this in mind, we must turn to the very idea of “business school,” especially Catholic ones. Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI held that the purpose of the market was not for maximization of commercial forms of wealth, thinking in the same vein as Aristotle that moderation is best. Rather, it was for the benefit of the family and that perhaps respect for social institutions — the natural forms of wealth — would invariably lead to greater benefits than those of the unnatural forms.
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Death of the Liberal Arts
The true purpose of education is to instill virtue in the individual. That is in itself a rather broad statement, but if we were to look at the state of modern higher education, we can easily find a vacuum of virtue, nay, an undermining of virtue in some of the best universities in the United States. However, the explanation for this is simple: business school itself is a deviation from the purpose of education, only breeding the “finance bro.”
Recently, a noticeable and alarming trend has taken place around college campuses, namely that colleges and universities are shutting down their liberal arts programs. Why is this? Is it liberalism? Undeniably. Liberalism is the rot that lay at the inner logic of the idea of the business school and its manifestations in the political realm.
Take a “networking night,” for example, which pits a group of young people in a room together so that they may build meaningful relationships and jumpstart their careers. That is very Aristotelian, wouldn’t you say? However, business schools almost always tend towards and invariably lead to a Millian style utilitarianism and Hobbesian state of nature, war style competition. This is because the ethos of “competition” eventually spreads among the different fields in the business school, in that the ultimate goal of our liberal economy is profit. What generates revenue, profit, and donors, in the case of the university? Competition with no regard for morals or the common good.
The globalizing tendencies of liberalism eventually spread this ethos to the other departments and schools on campuses, thus killing or leading to outright neglect of schools and departments that do not tend towards competition or supplicate to the dictatorial edicts of wealthy donors whose only loyalty lies in whatever maximizes wealth.
A Problem of Ethics
You will often hear about “Ethics of Business” courses, where the professor will often try to ground it in some Smithian interpretation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in that the invisible hand will guide you to the “common good” no matter what. There is no adequate way of sizing up Aristotle to the natural excesses that lie in business schools and Adam Smith’s liberalism. This pairing is misleading and misrepresents how Aristotle views the acquisition of wealth via the “invisible hand.”
The Ethics was written in observance of how many or most in the polity lived. The political community, in essence, lived for the common good. The Politics attempts to bridge the gap between things that were often seen as corrupting the individual and the polity, namely the dominance of the “few.” That said, the goal should not be a focus on “class reconciliation,” or other vague notions, but on the use of business education to support a genuinely just economy that provides for families and the common good.
Aristotle described how commercial forms of wealth naturally tend toward excessiveness and acquisitiveness, with no concern for ethical living. The business school teaches the latter, and the attempts at the former break down because of the Smithian understanding of attainment of wealth and the liberal ideology at the heart of the business school. If the business school exists to perhaps create virtuous business leaders, it is failing. Today, the business school exists not for the sake of living well but for merely living for the sake of wealth and its excesses.
At The Catholic University of America, the administration requires that students take liberal arts courses that rigorously challenge the intellect. In other words, you cannot coast through required classes. It is upon observation of networking night at the business school, that I come to you, the reader, with this insight. The title of this section of the essay is titled Regime Change, which may seem curious considering it implies the force of university administrative edict to rein in business school activities to more suit the ethos of the common good and wider university.
Catholic teaching should shape the activity of the business schools. The teachings of the Church have fallen upon deaf ears at business schools at all universities, especially Catholic ones, much to the detriment of the university as a whole, as donors and students flock to business but neglect the essentials of liberal education and ethical living. The common good is central to the mission of the Church and the university, so it must be front and center.
So too, it should be possible for a “Catholic business school” to exist, but it ultimately comes down to whether it can shake itself from the same liberal tropes and dogmas about market society. Is there any meaningful difference between a Catholic business school and a secular business school if they teach the same market liberalism, but the Catholic one merely doing so behind the veneer of faith? None of the major Catholic Universities and their business schools, save Georgetown (believe it or not), had any mention of the common good on their website.
Business schools will not save any university. Rather, they are undermining them. Hegel said it best that every regime plants the seeds of its own demise. The university is the regime. It now must dig up those seeds and plant better ones.
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