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Today's World Belongs Inside the Classroom

HBS is a beacon of learning, a repository of general management knowledge, and an educator in all aspects of business. And yet class after class, the pertinent issues occurring in the outside world are being ignored in favor of the cases. Discussions about Enron are foregone in favor of debates over non-profit Indian eye clinics and second-tier boardgame manufacturers. Anti-American rallies in the Middle East are ignored as we calmly delineate the strategy of an automotive insurance company. But does clinging to the syllabus fully prepare us for the leadership roles we’re all here to assume?

In order to be successful business leaders who “contribute to the well-being of society,” it seems obvious that we should be as well-versed in history as we are in current affairs. Pity the HBS’er who enters an interview armed with business valuation skills, but scant knowledge of the K-mart bankruptcy. Real life would be a tremendously effective and engaging way to communicate the lessons of strategy, entrepreneurship, finance and negotiation, yet we never get a chance to debate the pressing topics of today. And so far, we haven’t even had a forum outside of these pages to discuss such pressing issues, aside from the tables in Spangler.

HBS can be seen as perilously insular, to the point that only national emergencies manage to intrude upon the hallowed halls of Aldrich. Only September 11th could propel the faculty to present their views and attitudes. Must another national crisis occur for us to discuss what happens outside our Allston enclave?

This reticence about life outside-of-campus is nothing new here. One student’s father who attended HBS during the Vietnam War said that nothing was ever mentioned about the war in the classroom. A former HBS professor made a similar claim about the classroom in the 1980s, and yet another about the 1990s’ classroom.

Education is about more than facts. Business leaders must know how to incorporate current events in their businesses. As University Professor Michael Porter remarked last week, the role of the leader in business has changed and now requires far more interaction with governments and the social sector. How can we respond to market trends and the growing demands on business leaders from all sectors of society if we are trained to see current affairs as an extra-curricular force, one that’s external to the core of what business is about? Such a perspective flies in the face of everything happening around us.

Many traditions at HBS are wise, appreciated and compelling. But just as Aldrich Hall needs renovating, so does our treatment of current events. Let’s renovate the classrooms first. Then let’s make more space for the formative events that will shape and define our careers as much as the core concepts presented in cases.

February 19, 2002
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