Business is not a liberal art: Ancient American Traditions

Posted by Brian Connor

A recent helping of "Food for Thought," the anonymously distributed poster series that has sparked controversy and charges of reverse racism, fed my thinking, but it didn't whet my curiosity in the way its authors intended. It says something to the effect of, "what if your silky smooth hair was considered nappy and kinky and ugly, think about that next time you criticize other hair textures." The poster intends to raise awareness of racial marginalization and its effect on self-image and, more generally, acceptance in our community (if I mischaracterized their message the authors have no one to blame but themselves for publishing anonymously).

It was a wasted opportunity, however, as it challenges people who have "silky smooth hair," rather than challenging the system that declares those traits to be desirable. This flyer's detachment from real issues is indicative of a larger disconnect between students' words and actions.

The author of this poster could have scathingly indicted our society, but stopped short and made an ineffective point. What I read in lieu of a substantial argument was that students are eager to take potshots at campus culture and its majority groups (who cannot defend themselves because doing so would demonstrate bias and necessitate liberal reeducation by the administration) under the cover of anonymity, but are not willing to question the larger ills of our society, which they are, as students, buying into. And that is truly the biggest problem facing our college and society today. Students work tirelessly to promote awareness of social problems and instigate progressive change, yet are entirely complicit in the larger system that begets oppression.

Skidmore students, administrators and faculty pride themselves on having a progressive curriculum and diverse community, yet perpetuate a spirit of apathy and a willingness to settle on rigid homogeneity. What we have instead is an institution replete with philosophical contradictions, whose hypocrisy, and that of its students, is crystallized in its treatment of "Management and Business" as a legitimate intellectual pursuit.

The study of "Business," of how to make money, is antithetical to the purpose of a liberal arts education, yet Management and Business is the most popular major. Cleary, there is a credibility gap between students' criticisms of the college and society and their own actions. Skidmore students who take up progressive causes must in many cases be the same ones who, the classrooms of Palamountain and Bolton, plot to hoard wealth, manipulate the masses, and oppress the working class.

I took MB-107 my sophomore year, looking to branch out a bit, explore what the college had to offer. A course designed to teach the basics of business might be interesting, I thought. Unfortunately, as I soon deduced from a fifteen-minute homework assignment about the virtues of the McDonald's business plan, the course is intellectually bankrupt. Moreover, it promoted racial exploitation similar to that which the "Food for Thought" poster aimed to address.

We were assigned to do a semester long project with the goal of increasing the cosmetic giant Estee Lauder's profits. In keeping with our rapidly globalizing economy, we were encouraged to think outside the states, to establish markets abroad. We were given articles to look at, among which were several that focused on the potential market in India. India, they stated, was ripe for expansion by the cosmetics industry because there is an enormous demand among Indian men and women for whitening creams that will give them lighter complexions and make them look European. Here, in a Skidmore classroom, I was being encouraged to exploit deep-seeded and perverse racial complexes for profit.

At Skidmore, we have discussions about righting the wrongs in the world's societies, providing food and shelter to the starving peoples of the world, and advancing a harmonious multicultural philosophy, undoing and healing the effects of thousands of years of racial and economic oppression. Dozens of clubs exist to denounce the destruction of our natural environment and the perpetuation of racial injustice. And over in Palamountain, our very own, in the largest department on campus, we are plotting the economic rape of America's underclass, the exploitation of the colonially imposed psychoses of dark-skinned people the world over.

People will argue that Business can do good things and I am mischaracterizing it. They'll say Businesses can provide jobs and be leaders in environmentally sustainable, socially responsible practices. These businesses, however, are the exceptions and failed ventures. Most business majors won't be pioneering ground-breaking new industries, conceiving of and executing brilliant transnational business plans; they'll be making heart-wrenching decisions around Christmas time about how many employees to lay-off so their bosses can get pay-raises. They'll be lobbying third-world governments to loosen labor regulations and look the other way on child labor. The most helpful thing the Business department could do for its majors is train them to silence their consciences.

And Business is the most popular major at our college, more so than social work, government and philosophy combined. What this means is that we either have a deeply divided campus culture, with progressive socially-conscious students on side and would-be masters of the universe on the other. Or, as I've observed, we have rotisserie progressives at Skidmore, who take up and abandon popular causes like middle school fads. Many students are half activist, half mindless self-promoting consumer. I have encountered many students here who are Studio Art and Business double majors, because "if I can't make it as an artist then I'll need something substantial to fall back on." I believe that if you view art as a means to "make it," then you're doing it wrong—or not doing it at all. We should be engaging in art for art's sake, exercising creativity for the sake of creativity.

There is something to be said about the versatile liberal arts student, the student who balances playing the tuba, playing field hockey, painting, writing poetry and involvement in student government, who spent a summer building hospitals for albino Kazakhstani orphans. In most students' cases, however, these potentially rich personal skills and experiences are seen and wielded as a means to get into college and advance oneself, rather than as personally-fulfilling ends unto themselves. Students view themselves as marketable commodities, their degrees and skills valuable only as tools to achieve social distinction and wealth.

Which isn't to say that your college degree should not serve as leverage to advance your career. Most students do not have the luxury of taking a laissez-faire approach to post-graduation life. But the fact that Management and Business is the largest department at a liberal arts college signals that there is a culture of complicity in the entrenched systems that so many Skiddies aim to change.

Skidmore students too often allow themselves to be, as Mario Savio once analogized, products manufactured by an education machine, marketable items to be bought and sold in the post-grad business world. Our campus culture cynically assumes all of the idealism and activism of the college years should be shed upon graduation, put away like childish things.

Last semester, a representative from Career Services came and spoke to the seniors of my department. We were given a number flyers among which was "a formula for success," which instructs students to line up their interests and skills with their major, which will supposedly yield a viable profession. I was very disturbed by the idea that, after the intellectual journey I'd taken through college, after all the idealism, self-confidence and independent critical thinking skills instilled in me by incredible professors, that I was now honestly being encouraged to apply a "formula for success" to determine my career.

Let's practice what we preach here at Skidmore, and make ours a more genuine, socially conscious and intellectually oriented community.

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