Story behind the Passage
Of course, I have to write about the U.S. election today. But I am not going to write about it in the way that people have been talking about it on TV all day, i.e., about polls, the number of votes, the electoral college, etc. Instead, as a trained American Studies scholar, I want to address “my” people today — those in the humanities and all other “philosophers” out there who very often prefer talking over doing. Oooops, here we are already, that takes us right to the topic.
Today I happened to have a surprise conversation with a colleague of mine from academia. After talking about the issue that he wanted to ask me about, I ended up lecturing a little bit on my vision of the Applied Humanities; how (young) scholars can use their knowledge to create immediate impact in society and what kind of training it takes to enable them to walk these steps. “Well, Silke, I know you do not want to hear this, but this is activism, actually. The way you are describing the use of ideas to improve social reality — it is just that.”
My response was in line with what he had expected and we both laughed. I then tried to point out how entrepreneurship is different from activism. I actually used political terminology to describe the difference. Activism is a means of shaping or at least intervening in public discourse. But discourse does not feed you. It takes companies to create real, i.e., tangible, impact in the world. That is not to say that this excludes discourse. For sure, discourse brings topics to the agenda of political and other decision makers. But without companies, you will never end up with real products that we all need for daily life. Or do you think the toaster in your kitchen, the dishwasher, or even the computer/tablet in front of you were magically created by discourse? See! Companies are like the executive branch of science. They bridge the gap between research and application. And people create and run them.
So far, so good.
That started reframing his notion of the word “entrepreneurship,” as much as this is possible in one conversation in which I threw around with thoughts and concepts like a hammer thrower rotating at maximum speed. To me, it was fun to be talking about this stuff with someone who is so open about these ideas and really willing to learn practical tools. This is not the rule in our field in which critiquing neoliberal anything is what gets you credit from your peers — sometimes without anybody knowing exactly what neoliberalism really means from the perspective of political philosophy (no worries, I am not getting into this now…).
The interesting thing happened towards the end of the conversation in which I also wanted to know from him (yes, I kind of tortured him… but he wanted to talk to me in the first place!) which tools would actually help him for transferring his knowledge to the public. Well, I admit, this was a pretty dumb question because if he knew the tools already, there would not be a problem, right?! Still, he gave me a specific keyword that actually struck me because it exactly meets the core of my interests and business expertise (Storytelling). And I will be happy to share my knowledge with students who would like to learn about the beauty and joy of writing non-academic texts.
Why does it take this story to get to the point? It never takes a story… All this is simply my story of today and it is very much related to the reason why Trump was elected in the first place — at least in my opinion. And this is why I have chosen a passage from the The Pragmatic Imagination today. The book is a detailed account of the Wharton School’s history. Founded in 1881, it was the first business school in the U.S. at the University of Pennsylvania. Many international “celebrities” from business and politics studied at Penn, including Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, and — yes: Donald Trump.
But I did not pick up the book just to check on Trump’s education background. The book has been sitting on my shelf for years because of the research I did on the history of management and business studies. As someone who likes the pragmatic philosophy behind management as a practice, I wanted to learn how exactly the field emerged as an academic discipline. And I also wanted to know how business studies could experience such a decline when it comes to ethical but also creative issues linked to management as a profession. After all, most business scandals from the recent past — even without any involvement on the part of Trump — were linked to debates about business school education as a mere business itself without any sense of ethics (e.g., Enron).
I got answers to all these questions but my real aim was to show in how far management is indeed a liberal art that requires rational thinking and creative improvisation. And this is exactly what the humanities desperately need these days. Hence, I want to use the opportunity today to briefly mention my perspective of how the humanities, especially American Studies, could use the 2020 election (no matter if Trump ends up winning or not) as a wake-up call to take action — not by means of activism, by means of entrepreneurial thinking and pragmatic management.
“… to prepare the nation’s ‘young men of inherited intellect, means, and refinement’ to assume the leadership of America’s industrial economy.” If there is one thing that nobody doubts about Trump: He did take leadership in various business roles before actually turning the White House into the headquarters of the U.S. Inc. Corporation with him as the CEO. So, obviously, business is at the top of Trump’s agenda. But it would be wrong to suggest that this is simply his personal reality distortion field to turn everything into a business. No, as the data on the voters’ interests underline, the economy was the driving issue behind the decision-making process of registered voters.
This in and of itself is nothing special. The economy is usually at the top of the agenda in most national elections around the globe. What is surprising this time, however, is that the other hot issues that have been ruling the headlines in the recent months, especially race and ethnic inequality, immigration, and abortion/women’s rights were less important. This finding, along with the fact that Trump is who he is and made it into the White House at least once, motivates me to make three simple suggestions to my colleagues in American Studies (the cultural and literary studies group).
1.The economy, including business, should be on our research and teaching agenda: I listened to a panel discussion tonight on the topic of the election. It was run by leading scholars from Germany and abroad who all analyze the U.S. through different disciplinary lenses. I only followed the discussion for the first hour but the dynamic of the discussion reflected exactly the distribution of research interests in our field and among the participants (no surprise there). There is nothing wrong with this in general. This is what scholarly discussions are like. But one thing was obviously missing from the conversation: The economy as the most important issue that influenced the voters’ decision making.
Of course, there were differences between Democrats and Republicans with repect to the importance they placed on economics issues. Nevertheless, let us keep it simple: A business man is running the nation and the economy will always be important for elections. Could we please direct more attention towards this in our research, classes, and ‘discourse’? Yes, it is nice that we have so much expertise on social, cultural, race, and gender issues. But business should be our business as well.
2. Let’s train our own managers: We will not be able to stop managers and other business leaders to be (re-)elected for political positions. I am quite convinced that this practice of electing non-politicians for political offices will actually increase around the (Western) world. To me, it is a natural consequence of what I call talking-doing gap. Managers know how to get things done and especially in times of severe crises (Covid!) people trust in people who take action. They might not always end up being successful with what they do. But at least, they tried.
If people in the university, particularly in the humanities, do not learn how to turn words into actions, we will hardly gain access to upper-level management/leadership positions. In other words: We need to start training our own people in a way that they are eligible for important decision-making positions. This might not completely counter the election of rodeo cowboys such as Trump. But it increases the competition and it makes the fact that managers become presidents a lot less frightening if the managers who come to power have received a decent training and thus use their power in a responsible way.
3) Let’s contribute to the business schools: If the humanities are so knowledgeable about so many things — why can we not influence the way management education is run? As academics in leading positions of universities, interdisciplinary collaboration, which is now increasingly being practiced, gives us the chance to at least contribute to the curricula of business studies. What, management students do not learn about gender discrimination or political pluralism? Well, let’s go ahead and offer courses on that in the business school or invite the students over. What, MBA students never learn about the business history of the U.S. and the philosophical roots of Pragmatism? Well, let’s teach them how important all this is for their ‘profession.’
What I am saying, in case this is still too vague: Collaboration is the name of the game in the networked age. Again, activism might be a way to address this topic in the public (and all my writing here can be labeled as activism because writing shapes discourse — not more). Only implementing the specific suggestions I am making above will make a difference to the way managers are educated and thus prepared for decision making. Consequently, if we want different cowboys and also cowgirls in the White House — whereby White House here serves as a metaphor for governments around the world — we need to make sure their brains are filled with different things than just statistics and dollar bills.
Maybe we can all use some more “pragmatic imagination” for turning activism into real impact?
1) When you first learned about the tight election results last night/today — what was your first thought?
2) Do you agree with my thesis of the talking-doing gap? In which field is this most visible in your own life/work environment?
3) If you were running for political office, which department would you work for?
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