The Business of Education: The Education of Business

Dec 10, 2012 3:11:23 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

This post is the first of a monthly column: "Thoughts on Education Abroad" written by CAPA International Education's Dr. Michael Woolf.

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I begin with a confession: I am a child of the 1960s reluctantly reconstructed in the harsh realities of this blighted century. I believed then (as we all did then) in peace, freedom, the power of flowers, the power of dope. I also believed above all (as we all did then) in the power of conspiracy. We had among our points of reference the kind of eloquent assertion by the writer Jerome Charyn:

The devils are in charge of the world. Who else could create so much madness in such an organized way?

I believed (as we all did then) in the shadowy realities of a thing located in some dark place (probably Washington D.C.) that we could only name hesitantly as “the military-industrial complex”. This unholy alliance of army demons and business devils lurked behind all the world’s travails. I believed (as we all did then) that history and reality were controlled by an ominous set of institutions, their demonic functions beyond our control or real understanding.

Indeed, the art and literature of the 1960s created many versions of such a conspiracy in the James Bond films (SMERSH), in novels of Ken Kesey, the underworld projections of William Burroughs, the poetry of Allan Ginsberg, the fiction of Joseph Heller.

The rules that oppressed us were never explicit; their very vagueness and elusiveness was an essential element of their menace. This was memorably expressed, by Joseph Heller's notion of “Catch 22” implicitly unleashing the dark and absurd possibility of, at least, 21 other catches.

In Heller’s novel, Catch 22 becomes the shorthand for a nightmarish and comic conspiracy that has military and capitalist-commercial dimensions. In this episode, the central figure, Yossarian revisits a Roman brothel only to find that all the young women have been driven away by soldiers. An old woman relates the episode to Yossarian:

“…Why are you chasing us out?” the girls said.
"Catch – 22,” the men said.
“What right do you have?” the girls said.
“Catch-22,” the men said.
All they kept saying was “Catch – 22, Catch-22. What does it mean, Catch – 22? What is Catch – 22?”
“Didn't they show it to you?” Yossarian demanded, stamping about in anger and distress. “Didn't you even make them read it?”
“They don’t have to show us Catch –22,” the old woman answered. “The law says they don’t have to.”
“What law says they don’t have to?”
“Catch –22.”

The notion of conspiracy was not, of course, new or unique to the 1960s. It had, for example, energised Joseph McCarthy, the Witchfinder General of the 1950s, who identified the conspiracy as rooted in the Communist cells that secretly multiplied in the US body politic. Indeed most of the work on Heller’s novel (first published in 1961) had been done during the insidious McCarthy era. The cancer at the heart of the USA was hidden and demonic. Notions of conspiracy (real and imagined) have been used to assert social and political control for centuries.

Back then, we also had our demons: the lesson of the Vietnam War was not that all war is bad but that war is good for some people – but not us. If indigenous civilians and conscripted foot soldiers were victims, the winners were the military (for whom war was their raison d’être) and international business whose profits were obscenely bloated through their secret exploitation of conflict.

The key concepts then were secrecy and conspiracy. We were unconvinced that any of this could be anything to do with incompetence or accident. Conspiracy rather than cock-up was the orthodox view of history.

There was also of course another possibility. The literary model here ought to be William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

In lieu of conspiracy, as the 70s turned into the 80s, limped towards the end of the century, and stumbled into these turbulent times, it has become clear that nobody, nothing could be organizing this: chaos not conspiracy is the guiding principle of history.

You might by now think that I have lost the thread and that my topic has slipped imperceptibly away. That may well be true but there are a few points that might restore us to a semblance of balance:

1. It appears that, post-conspiracy theory, business and industry is in much the same mess as the rest of us.

2. However, the business world contains within it mechanisms that are used to managing recovery and sustaining growth. In contrast, the educational world lives with a profound myth of permanent decline. Education is, after all, deeply enamoured with the Garden of Eden which becomes manifest in the certainty that then (whenever that was) was better than now (whenever this is). Indeed, we are as those expelled: Adams and Eves forever bemoaning the fact that things aren't what they used to be (or, as Lionel Bart asserted, “Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be”). As teachers we are sure that what we know is, of course, what it is necessary to know. In a period of accelerated change, however, it may be that that knowledge becomes redundant rather more swiftly than we would like. In my more terror stricken moments, in the dead of night, I sometimes suspect that the young know different things and that what they know really matters!

The fact of growth and change is the force that has to shift our dinosaur mentalities. As a dead white male, even I understand that there is an ongoing momentum wherein culture, knowledge, truth itself is swept along and shaped and reshaped as rushing river floods across dry land.

These challenges became manifest most obviously in the growth on an international scale of the demand for education at all levels. Simultaneously, the staggering development of new technologies continues to alter the borders of our nations and our minds. Given these conditions it is clear that there are lessons to be learned from good business practice (whatever that is).

It is also true, however, that as the brash values of business are challenged by recessions, it becomes clear that business has something to learn from the educational world. There can be found resistance to crude and corrupt expansion without ethics, responsibility, control or development. In one sense education can demonstrate the importance of "values" that are not solely based on immediate profit. Education is, after all, based on the notion of "investment" in the future not just profit in the present.

There are many obvious ways in which education contributes to business: research, training, testing, technical development, creation of vocational standards and qualifications, and so on. It is also clear that these functions are not the sole province of the educational world. Many industrial and business sectors are precisely involved in developing these functions outside of academia for reasons that might vary greatly but will often be some combination of cost, efficiency and relevance.

There may also be a less obvious way in which educational value may help modify and amend what Charles Handy calls the "economic myth" in The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism - A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World (London: 1997):

I am concerned by the absence of a more transcendent view of life, and the purpose of life, and by the prevalence of the economic myth which colours all that we do. Money is the means of life and not the point of it.

Handy points out that, at the current growth rate, in 100 years we would be buying 16 times as much of everything that we buy now. What would we do with all that stuff? The potential for ecological nightmare is clear.

What this demonstrates is that the objective of maximising growth is a flawed one. In short, there are values that need to be translated from one sector to another, from education to business and from business to education.


1. The "cock-up" theory of history has greater credence than the conspiracy theory (though both theories have considerable potential for art and entertainment). The likelihood is that human affairs have more to do with chaos than ominous order. Industry (and business) is/was simply not well-organised or efficient enough.

2. We now recognise that universities are themselves big businesses employing (sometimes misusing) all the techniques of management that we fondly believed were alien to academia. We recognise also the role that universities have in regional and national development, in the creation of wealth, in the politics of commerce and so on.

3. The notion of the "purity" of knowledge in contrast to the veniality of business is, it is now apparent, based on a fundamental misconception.

There are continuous and profound levels of interaction between business and education in both directions. The continued mistrust derives perhaps from the persistence of stereotypes out of which some areas of the relative sectors peer myopically. For some of us in Humanities, the business sector is permeated by images that range historically from Shylock to Dickens's Gradgrind to the film "Wall Street". In parts of the business world, the "Ivory Tower" still stands and the absent-minded professor potters ineffectually along a path to no place. These images reflect constructs that, if they were ever true are certainly no longer current.

I have tried to demonstrate that education and business must no longer mind their own business. They're profoundly connected -- if not exactly in bed together at least having a cuddle on the sofa.