A child stepping on giant books.

Many years ago, when I was teaching at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, I attended a talk given by Benjamin Barber, an American political theorist.  I remember the talk well, because he posed what seemed to me a profound question—did American colleges and universities educate their students to be citizens or consumers?  You might imagine that a political theorist would think we should strive to educate and develop good citizens first, perhaps even at the expense of educating them to be good consumers.  And you would be correct, at least in Barber’s case—that was his exact message—but he also believed that, in reality, we were doing it backwards.  He believed we excelled in forming smart consumers, but were falling down in the citizenship category.

I was recently reminded of Barber’s talk by a couple of opinion pieces in the New York Times, “The Dark Century” by David Brooks; the other by Frank Bruni.  Both articles argue that a large reason for America’s decline on the world stage (obviously, to the extent you believe that or not) is that we Americans have become complacent with our position of leadership in the world, and have essentially stopped teaching younger generations what it takes to effectively govern ourselves within a democratic republic.  According to Brooks, democracy and peace must be “…tended and cultivated from the frailties of human passion and greed.  Over the past few generations that hopeful but sober view of human nature has faded….Even in America, over the past decades, the institutions that earlier generations thought were essential to molding a democratic citizenry have withered or malfunctioned.”

My thoughts here are not about politics—liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat—but are related to Barber’s original message.  Are American colleges and universities educating our students to be consumers or citizens?  In particular, what lasting influences are business schools having on our students?

Before delving into these questions, we should first delineate what we mean by “citizen” and “consumer.”  Obviously, we could look up their definitions in a dictionary, but for my purposes, I think we can distinguish them fairly simply.  A citizen holds certain roles and duties as part of a larger group; central to them is some level of concern for or duty to other members of the group.  A consumer, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with his or her own benefit.  As a consumer, one’s primary duty is to oneself, and others are often viewed as competitors.  Thus, a defining difference between the two is their relationship to others.

Let me also say that I see nothing inherently good or bad about educating students to be either consumers or citizens.  Both roles are important in being able to live a good life.  Ideally, each of us should be both good citizens and good consumers.  The focal question is do we do a good job of teaching those roles to our students?

I argue that colleges and universities—more specifically, the business schools on their campuses—do a much better job at educating students to be good consumers than we do educating citizens.  A big part of the reason is because that’s what we’re supposed to do.  Our primary concern is about running businesses effectively and efficiently.  As business people, we are focused primarily on ourselves, whether that is us individually, our companies, our unions, our trade group, etc.  Business people need to know how to consume (i.e., buy) well, and knowing that helps us know how to sell well, also.  One measure that helps us think about this is findings from studies that measure business students’ ethics compared to non-business majors’.  These studies are fraught with significant concerns from a research standpoint (how does one measure a person’s ethics, for example) and results have been mixed—but there is reason to believe that business majors display lower levels of ethicality than non-business majors.  To the extent this finding is accurate, it would indicate that business schools are better at educating consumers than citizens.

I have little empirical evidence to offer, but I am very worried that Barber, Brooks, and Bruni have identified a valid concern.  As I look around our campus, state, and nation (and keep in mind I live in Iowa, the land of “Iowa Nice”) I see cause for concern everywhere.  You don’t need me to list all the ways in which we are divided, lack trust, and harm each other.  We all—each person, each business, each school, each government agency, each church—should be promoting citizenship, talking about it, exemplifying it for others.

I want to end this thought by returning to business schools, and what we teach.  I stated earlier that we are supposed to teach our students to be good consumers.  Although I firmly believe that, I am also sure that our responsibility does not end there.  We should also be stressing citizenship, within our business communities, with our customers, employees, government regulators, and any other stakeholder group you care to name.  Being a good consumer is simply not sufficient to provide the social glue we must have, that allows our businesses and economy operate.

What if our business schools taught students to be good citizens and good consumers?