More than 120 years ago, Scots steel mogul Andrew Carnegie railed against any one with the temerity to question the natural order. Carnegie embraced fully Briton Herbert Spencer’s adaptation to society Charles Darwin’s scientific ideas on natural selection. Darwin posited that species survive through evolution, by adapting to meet challenges posed by specific and changing environments.
Spencer became a hero to the captains of industry of Gilded-Age America. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Social Darwinism became an excuse for the argument that nothing could be done about anything. In university classrooms, Protestant church pulpits, and popular literature, defenders of the capitalist order slammed socialists, reformers, and settlement house workers -- -anyone who did not believe that Americans lived in the best of all possible worlds. The successful American entrepreneur was the figurative beauty rose grown hardy in the weedy global financial garden.
As Philadelphia Presbyterian minister Russell Herman Conwell proclaimed in his sermon, “Acres of Diamonds,” which he gave more than 10,000 times, all listeners had to do was look around them, at the diamonds that lay at their feet. Another minister, Horatio Alger, counselled that all a young boy needed to succeed was pluck and virtue, and luck would then follow naturally. Theirs was a call to entrepreneurship, to rugged individualism, and a clarion that failures in life had no one to blame but themselves.
Conwell, Alger, and other champions of laissez-faire capitalism addressed white males over twenty-one. Blacks, immigrant minorities from Southern and Eastern Europe, and women did not qualify to compete. In the racial and sexual Darwinian readings of reality, these groups ranked way down the pole.
Individual responsibility was the motif that allowed self-made businessmen to become the exemplary citizens of their day. Americans did not have business schools then. They studied political economy. It was enough that industrial magnates controlled the major institutions of capitalism-banks, stock market, railroads, and utilities. That was proof of their ability.
In 1889, Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” summarized the Darwinian reading of current economics. He extolled the merits of capitalism, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and unbridled competition. To succeed, men had to struggle in the marketplace and elsewhere. Wealthy families should avoid leaving inheritances that would transform the backbone of their descendants into éclairs. Artificial help of any sort would play havoc with the natural order. Philanthropy was preferable.
Many years separate Andrew Carnegie from the Queen’s University School of Business. Commerce students these days, arguably the best and the brightest each year among entering frosh, find role models from economics and business professors favouring a similar approach to money making as the laissez-faire gang of the previous century. Much influenced by free-market ideas developed at the University of Chicago and Stanford (as are all business schools these days), Queen’s takes justifiable pride in ranking among the very best undergrad commerce programs in North America each year.
I’ve taught many of these students. They are, generally, terrific self-starters and -- -albeit within a fairly narrow paradigm -- -great problem solvers. When one mentions “management techniques” or “marketing strategies,” eyes gleam. But, unfortunately, many commerce students prove less able in areas that require one to read and think critically, and to write clear and vigorous prose.
In recent years, Queen’s School of Business has often touted its MBA programs in the pages of the Globe and Mail. So, of course, do all the other MBA programs-Ivey at Western, Schulich at York, Rotman at Toronto, and so on. This kind of advertising, one reasons, is like a poker game. Unless you advertise your wares in the Globe and Mail news and business sections, you’re not at the table. “It’s marketing, pure and simple,” a business colleague noted recently.
But those advertisements tout executive programs that cost grad students upwards of $25,000 a year. The rest of the university grits its teeth and rolls its eyes. Why, they wonder, does a university business school need to tell the world about how great it is? Are money and excellence coeval? Is Queen’s becoming a little corporate empire itself? Lurking within these queries are others: why can’t the history or classics departments inform the world how great they are? And what of the good work of the entire Arts and Science faculty?
Not as sexy, obviously, as the Business School. On June 27, page A7, readers of the Globe and Mail beheld yet another full page advertisement -“208 OUTSTANDING GRADUATES. ONE EXCEPTIONAL DEGREE." This ad was not an MBA puff. This ad conveyed the School’s congratulations to its commerce undergraduates, all of who were named. The MBA marketing strategy now trickles down to corrode the undergraduate program.
The commerce ad was hugely expensive. It represented an escalation in the game of “mine is bigger (or better) than yours.” Whether the free market economists in the Queen’s Business School realized it or not, their pricey support of the graduating class of 2005 not only served their marketing function, but it also gave the Gael commerce grads an unwarranted boost. In most newspapers dads and moms pay for grad ads. Not in Kingston, where the Queen’s Business School has re-established the principle of in loco parentis.
Obviously good things do go on in commerce program courses. But the advertisement in the Globe and Mail flies in the face of the free-market axiom that the Business School preaches--that one succeeds or fails according to one’s ability. Andrew Carnegie, who would approve most Business School endeavours, would disparage this one. Queen’s grads do not need ads.
This piece was originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard 12 August 2005.