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Business thinking is death to the humanities



Here's a suggestion. In order to halt the seemingly inexorable destruction of the humanities in our secondary schools, we should immediately sack any senior Education Department bureaucrat who has a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Or perhaps they can be forced to reapply, unsuccessfully, for their old jobs. They like that kind of thing.

Incomplete papier-mâché project (sonnydaez / Getty Creative)A little explanation. This writer recently made the foolish mistake of thinking he could change from being a journalist to a teacher. Partly believing the hot air issuing from government that older teachers, who have other life experiences, are valued — in reality there is as much ageism and suspicion of higher qualifications as elsewhere in the work force — I set about getting the necessary qualification.

The first shock was being told that, despite having a PhD in literature, I was not 'qualified' to do a Diploma of Education (my undergraduate subject mix was deemed inappropriate, while my honours year and post-graduate qualifications did not count). So much for any commitment to raising the educational accomplishment of teachers.

I did, however, find one university, on the border of Victoria and New South Wales, that would take me, whereupon an even nastier surprise lay in wait. I had, for over two decades, written on management for BRW, then the national business magazine. Part of my reason for wanting to teach was to get away from all that (although at least I had had the opportunity to satirise the barbarisms of management language). Instead, I aspired to immerse myself in drawing students' attention to the wonders of the traditions of English literature.

It was thus somewhat jarring to realise that much of what passed for educational training had been deeply influenced by management theory. I not only recognised the arguments, I had interviewed a number of the people who had concocted them. These management theories are, with a few exceptions, intellectual dross. That they are taken seriously in university departments that teach teachers is deeply troubling.

I then talked to a few experienced teachers, who all complained about the increasing amount of paperwork in their job and a loss of autonomy: both unmistakeable signs of the application of bad management theories, especially the pernicious Quality Assurance. Unfortunately, the teachers do not know why it is happening to them. I also witnessed a principal of a secondary school talk about how to eliminate 'variance' in educational inputs for the students. He may as well have been talking about quality control in widget manufacture.

The hollowness of these management ideas has been understood by most businesses, but sadly they still thrive in government bureaucracies. It is imiserating many good, dedicated teachers, who are left wondering why so much of their work now is bureaucratic form filling, and so little is actual teaching. That is what people with MBAs do — the heavy emphasis is on the 'A' of administration.


"These management theories are, with a few exceptions, intellectual dross. That they are taken seriously in university departments that teach teachers is deeply troubling."


In effect (although this is perhaps a little unfair) what people learn in an MBA is how to behave like Toyota in the 1990s, when it had the world's best production line. That is fine for manufacturing, and some service industries to a point, but education is not served well by seeing it in those terms.

It results in understanding the 'process' of education as essentially box ticking. Thus, in each subject there is a study design, which outlines those boxes: they are called 'outcomes'. 'Outcomes' are the widgets rolling off the end of the production line. They are then assessed for quality, which comes in the form of a grid, called assessment criteria.

Some subjects — maths, and to some extent the sciences — might be approached in this way because, at VCE level, there are usually right and wrong answers: correct boxes to tick. But in the humanities the approach is a disaster. Box ticking makes learning these subjects all but pointless.

The problem is epistemological (the branch of philosophy concerned with how knowledge is developed). The maths and sciences have a very different epistemology to the humanities. The former is concerned mostly with what is generally, or invariably, true. The latter tends to be concerned with uniqueness, or points of difference.

To explain what is meant in extreme terms, a scientific, or empirical, analysis might conclude that Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh all used the colour yellow. This would be true, but will tell us nothing about what makes them remarkable as artists. The humanities approach, by contrast, should look at what makes the painters distinct, even unique. The aim is deep reflection, preferably leading to original insights. That cannot be systematised in a study design.

The MBA-style of thinking (or non-thought), with its quasi-scientific, empirical emphasis on managing repetition and removing unwanted variation, is a poison that is killing the humanities' roots. It is time to remove senior education department bureaucrats who got MBAs in order to get positions with big salaries.

And my teaching career? I did not get a job — only one interview from nearly a hundred applications — and will soon be deregistered by the Victorian Institute of Teaching (VIT) for not getting employment in a school and 'transitioning' to full status. Someone in the VIT obviously has an MBA, and a grid full of outcomes and assessment criteria.



David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of businessadvantagepng.com. He has a PhD in English literature and is author of the musical comedy The Bard Bites Back, which is about Shakespeare's ghost.

Main image: sonnydaez / Getty Creative

Topic tags: David James, universities, teachers



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Existing comments

When what you call ‘business thinking’ is actually applied to business, it doesn’t work there either, David. Why? Because it’s not really thinking at all, but more like completing a fairly simple Sudoku puzzle.

Ginger Meggs | 16 April 2019  

This is monstrous and clearly wrong, David. How privileged anyone would be in your classroom. Please, bard, can't you bite back? Inspiring students who may not see the benefits of a broad education is the proper work of those who can see the benefits of not fitting in.

Pam | 17 April 2019  

My gripe with the business model, different view but same side of the coin that the author addresses, is that anything you can't put a dollar value on has no value, at least according to management. So you can do away with whole departments, e.g. humanities, e.g. libraries. The list could go on.

MargaretMC | 17 April 2019  

Business = corporate profit, share value, obscene executive salary packaging and good boy bonuses regardless of cost to human decency and society. Should be booted out of the universities along with marketing. Sadly won't happen, however, since the universities have themselves become businesses and marketeers and dumbed down true academe to accommodate paying clients many of whom are not high school capable. Came across a person with a degree in Ethical Botany recently which apparently is the study of how human beings use and relate to plants. Despite searching for ages, can't for the life of me find the door out of the madhouse.

john frawley | 18 April 2019  

In this world of business thinking we are all reduced to "customers". Our local council used to call us residents, or rate payers; now we are customers. Makes me wonder what the council is trying to sell us.

Janet | 23 April 2019  

I had a similar experience in the 90s. I held a ba and dphil (oxon) in physics nuclear physics and maths. This was ignored as I ‘had no unit records’. Oxford doesn’t do units. I also held an MBA and Asian studies MA and an undergrad psychology major all from australian universities. Apparently I was only eligible fir psychology.. since then I have recent grad dips in psychology and IP law and masters in ethics international relations and musicology.but am also 77 and not wanted on the voyage .even at the qualifying grad dip teaching..level..fir many reasons(ACUdid finally offer me a place in religious studies as an ex_jesuit school graduate plus the MAethics etc but other reasons stopped that).. the irony is that one of my Phd students is now the guru of problem based learning and engineering education and we published together fir a decade. So I don’t agree on understanding the enemy(Mba) nor the assumed determinism of maths and physics but understand the authors experience all too well (www.mwigan.com might amuse him further!)

Marcus wigan | 23 April 2019  

I'm afraid that managerialism is also killing off mathematics and science at the tertiary level as well. In many institutions they are regarded as difficult subjects and so do not attract enough students to be continued. Also, at least in one of the Big 8 universities where I was once tutoring the machine was required to pass 90% of students. This meant that in a Civil Engineering subject, I was chastised for expecting 4th year students to understand compound interest. It turned out that they had chosen Civil Engineering in order to avoid mathematics! Asking them to do the sums would discourage future enrollments.

Jim Youngman | 23 April 2019  

Wonderful, David, to see “outcomes” hit for six. I taught for nearly forty years at tertiary level (theology) and in the last decade had to deal with outcomes requirements. My initial attempts—“That candidates might acquire wisdom”; “that they might realize how little they know”—were soon turned down. Then I realised that it’s just a game you have to play. Rent a few “outcomes”, employ them with minor adjustments, then get right back to the real thing.

Brendan | 23 April 2019  

Always a pleasure & educational to read an article by David James. Primary & secondary education of children is a great honour & a great responsibility. As Clemenceau said "War is too important to be left to the generals" I would like to suggest "Education is too important to be left to Systems Analysts & their disciples." In my experience as a pupil my best teachers were not necessarily the most intelligent but they did have common sense, a caring attitude & infectious enthusiasm. Qualities that cannot be quantified to fit into an organisational matrix.

UnclePat | 23 April 2019  

In the last years of my teaching/school-leadership career I railed (ineffectively) against what I called the 'Economic Theory of Education'. Schools are not factories, and students are not products. Some politicians, and education administrators need to get their heads around this. Thank you, David, you have very eloquently made the point.

Damien | 23 April 2019  

Science and mathematics are fundamentally creative too and are dependent on making imaginative connections. Marking these subjects for “right” answers misses the point altogether and I hate to think what box-ticking has done to these subjects in schools.

Miranda | 23 April 2019  

A crying shame that you should have been offered only one interview ("Unfortunately... on this occasion... unsuccessful" is - I think - how the line goes). I have just drawn a little box on the back on an envelope and marked it 'David James - transitioning to full status' (I believe it is imperative that verbs are expressed as present participles), and ticked it. Hope it helps. Sorry; 'Hope it is helping'. PS Empirical sciences are also hollowed out by tick-box thinking. At its heart scientific understanding comes primarily from creative thinking.

Richard Jupp | 23 April 2019  

Am in despair as are others I know reading the illiterate and jargon- ridden rubbish emanating from the management of Universities including the ANU, lectures consisting of power point images with a sentence below each, the indignation when students are failed, the threats when a rigorous department fails more than other, venial departments desperate for students. As though failure means teachers are to blame rather than for example a student who can hardly write being admitted. Know of eg case of an old UK University sending a numbskull over for a PhD just to get rid of him, and when I pointed out he could not get his facts right let alone write intelligibly I was struck off the supervising committee. Left my University with sadness but great relief. A miracle that a minority of intelligent and hard working students survive to be thinking human beings.

Karis | 23 April 2019  

I have strong reservations about your jeremiad, David, despite starting from what is probably a very similar values base. You state your educational aims by reference to a lofty and generally respected, if rather vague, ideal, ‘drawing students' attention to the wonders of the traditions of English literature’. That’s OK by me – but only as far as it goes. Then you contrast, but only by implication, your goal with current practice as outlined and recommended in the VCE Study Design guide, which document you denounce as born of a deservedly-unpopular contemporary ogre, ’MBA-style thinking’. Without so much as a hint as to proof of paternity. Am I wrong to get a sniff of ‘guilt-by-alleged-association’ at this point? Why not cut straight to the chase? Show us how the OFFIC DOC stops/impedes progress towards your goal and then identify the obstacles you’ve identified as due to MBA thinking? That’s when a call for sacking some educational planners would make sense to me. Lofty Passion and soundly-constructed Planning aren’t necessarily incompatible, y’know.

Brian Abbey | 23 April 2019  

how true

Nicholas Agocs | 23 April 2019  

I have done anMBA and found that it gave me some useful knowledge and a different perspective in my professional life. Although I agree that the Toyota assembly line gets a lot of attention, it is unproductive to simply copy the model, without understanding the principles involved and making systems work is much more difficult than so called reform. I think that the problem is not with business thinking, but in the bureaucratic model, which is based on mechanistic management theory, and in which workers (not people) operated in a rule based environment, which is designed to eliminate thought and initiative. Of course workers are people and so they bend the rules and act accordingly, particularly in establishing unauthorised lines of communication. One of the problems is that a lot of business thought gets distilled into rules or algorithms that are applied without any real understanding of the underlying thought process.

David | 23 April 2019  

This is not a new problem. After gaining my BA and Dip Ed, I was appointed to a well-regarded Canberra school, to teach English. As I entered my allocated staff-room, I was told - politely but firmly - "In this staff-room we do not permit discussion of anything to do with history, politics, or religion... Sport is OK." And that was the Humanities staff-room, in 1970. My attempt to pursue an MA (in Philosophy of Education) was frustrated by my employer, the Dept of Education. I quit after a year. I am not confident that much has changed.

H K Whitton | 23 April 2019  

A coruscating account, exposing how the application of neoliberal practices to the teaching of the humanities has dissembled education and torn from it all manner of meaning intended to inform and support the critical virtues and sniff out many vices. My experience of this upon arriving in Australia was to be employed as a Senior Social Studies Master in a Catholic College in which all learning and its application had been reduced to a 'tick the boxes' multiple-choice 'test mechanism' based on the assumption that all knowledge could be objectified and hence marking, as well as student selection, made easy for the uncritical teachers employed at the school. Upon stating my objections and devising a strategy to introduce a moderation exercise, the Principal overrode my scruples and suggested I look elsewhere for a position. Meantime, a very bright student, plunged into an advanced state of anxiety over her subsequent demotion, took her own life. Some years later, while employed as an educational philosopher at a university, I was challenged by the Dean of my Faculty to withdraw my criticisms of a 'productive pedagogies' project that had become the darling of the boffins at Education House. I declined and prematurely retired.

Michael Furtado | 24 April 2019  

Very well written article by David James. And there is a nugget of deep truth in what he writes......as someone who has both an MA and a MBA, I can't believe how the latter has invaded my world of being an anglican priest. That is not to say here aren't some very good principles from the latter, but to make it king? Iain

Iain | 27 April 2019  

For 'government department' read 'CSIRO' and for 'teaching' read 'research'. When 'effort logging' was introduced into CSIRO some years ago I was convinced it was aimed at getting me, personally, to retire. It worked, and as if to confirm my suspicions, it was removed not long after I had left the paid work scene. You are a little hard on mathematics and the sciences, where imagination and creativity also play a big part (and are just as difficult to assess), but on the whole you hit the nail on the head. Do not give up, David. Our students need you.

Bill Venables | 27 April 2019  

The purpose of modern education is to produce slaves for the workforce. The tick-boxes work well in grading them. People like you, David, cause dysfunction to the system. Hence the need for artificial intelligence.

DonaldD | 27 April 2019  

Miranda, quite right. Mathematics is just a tool to help understand the natural world. Isaac Newton knew that. It's not an end in itself. I have had maths teachers who would teach maths like this: "a + b =c, it follows then that (F)vY+f(x)y=0 " without explaining the intermediate steps. Well maybe an exaggeration but not much of one! Maths (and Physics) teachers seem to me to be either very good or very awful with nothing in between. If school students were told that they use Calculus intuitively every time they cross a road (to work out if they have enough time to cross safely when they can see a car coming), rather that talk about infinitely hopping frogs, then they might get it sooner.

Bruce Stafford | 27 April 2019  

This is clearly a bad situation. The MBA does have its place. However, the bigger issues described here seem to be more in the misuse of tools of management, a failure to critically assess the operating environment and then develop effective long term strategies. From an economic perspective, I continue to struggle with how Universities can continue to pump out graduates who will struggle to ever find work in their professional area. I have had recent experience with a massive number of young job seekers with recent degrees and honours degrees in Forensic Science from two universities based in Sydney - applying for basic TAFE certificate level lab roles in manufacturing. This is beyond irresponsible. In the case of the Teaching profession, I have long believed we need to pay Teachers a lot more money, raise entry standards, produce fewer graduates and attract more people of the caliber of David James.

Dave | 28 April 2019  

David I agree with you on this topic, the schools are huge and corporatised. One source of the the problems is trying to make teaching a profession, it's not, its a vocation, a calling.

terry | 11 July 2019  

One would laugh David - except that what you write is true. It is not a joke. I headed off to Japan for a two year exchange (secondary) 1991-1992 - and returned two years later to stay a further 14+ years. My licences (degrees/diplomas, accredited status from Australia) fully recognised - including my years of teaching in Australia for salary assessment - my programs/choices of textbooks (when I did not write my own courses) given full professional freedom and control - even to my own methods of assessment (unorthodox though they probably seemed - at middle school, senior high and for my university programs, too). Your thinking to sack any senior/other bureaucrats with MBAs mirrors my own thinking re any politician with a law degree. In Australia I was variously a teacher of History, of English (literature and writing) of EAL - even briefly of middle school level French and German - and then of Japanese - before heading to then staying in Japan until my retirement. What I can measure is the degree of interest I am able to inspire in my students - not the "widgets". Not the NAPLAN nonsense. Though I can easily figure out that it is this kind of testing which is dragging Australia's ranking down to the abysmal levels of those found across the US. More articles like this please!

Jim KABLE | 02 August 2019