the business of critical thinking and design

The NY Times reports on the rise of "multicultural critical theory"… in business schools??? Citing changes at UToronto, Harvard, and Stanford there appears to be a shift toward bringing both critical theory and design theory into MBA's. “The liberal arts desire,” Roger Martin, dean of Toronto's b-school says, is to produce “holistic thinkers who think broadly and make these important moral decisions. I have the same goal.” Similarly, “If I’m going to really launch you on a career or path where you can make a big impact in the world,” explains [Stanford U's b-school] dean, Garth Saloner, “you have to be able to think critically and analytically about the big problems in the world.”

On a slightly different tack, the article also reports on "design thinking"

“Critical thinking is an ability to understand a system or a statement and respond to it,” explains Tim Brown, president of IDEO, the design firm whose founder, David Kelley, was the main force behind the [Stanford U's] d.school’s creation. “What’s different about design thinking is, it’s focused on taking that understanding you have about the world and using that as a set of insights from which to be creative.”

The article goes on to note that "The changes are also not limited to graduate programs. Because business is now such a popular undergraduate degree, the Carnegie Foundation is arguing for greater integration of the liberal arts with undergraduate business programs."

Hmmm…. So what does it mean when business school deans start talking like humanities professors? Do we think there must be some miscommunication? Do we say that if one really understood "critical theory" or making important moral decisions then you wouldn't be running a business school or getting an MBA? I mean, how does one react to such reporting?

The reality is that in the mid-twentieth century all those business people were getting actual liberal arts degrees rather than business degrees with some liberal arts content. For the last 20-30 years students have been abandoning English and the rest of the humanities in pursuit of finance and accounting. So now it would appear that at least some b-schools might be realizing that the liberal arts education that their MBA students were getting as undergrads once upon a time wasn't so worthless after all. At the same time these gestures should clarify that learning critical theory is not connected to any particular political project. For example, an understanding of postcolonial feminist theory might help a manager in dealing with female workers in southeast Asia, but it doesn't mean that manager will come to identify herself or her corporate colleagues as oppressors. On the other hand, maybe such an education does result in the pursuit of some improvement of those workers' lives. So I'm not sure how to take that.

From the perspective of some critical theory, the activities of business schools and their graduates cannot be redeemed. For others, b-schools might be a good place to work on creating a more ethical and fair business world.

That said, I am particularly interested in the relation between critical thinking and design thinking. This is a space where I have long believed English and other humanities are lacking. We're quite good at the critical part, but we tend to ignore the next step, where one takes one's critical insights and uses them as a foundation for doing something… for action. In my experience, when one tries to do this one immediately encounters the critical function. So while I don't think that the humanities needs to go anywhere near what anyone would recognize as a "business" curriculum, it wouldn't hurt exploring the positive, creative potential of critical thinking further. I think that if we were to find business majors in our courses that it would be helpful not only to teach critical theory but to encourage those students to figure out ways to make use of it in their professional lives.

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