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 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


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