Back in Janauary I posted on Public Intellectualism. I am prompted to return to this subject and related matters by two items:
- In Wired September 2008, they discuss Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason wherein she takes the position according to Wired that "long standing American values like rugged individualism and the need to question authority have metastasized into reflexive anti-intellectualism and disdain for "eggheads", "elites" and pretty much anyone who might be described as credentialed".
- My friend Colleen has a series of recent posts (here and here) about the role of "theory" in business education at the university level. Perhaps the best part of the discussion is in the comments for each post wherein the students show their disdain for "theory" and their preference for practical course content and the professors point out that critical thinking can only be achieved if one has a grounding in theory.
In some ways the student disdain for theory alone is perhaps proof of Jacoby's point. Giving the students the benefit of the doubt, perhaps if they had more business background they could apply the theory themselves. However, it's not clear to me why students can not make the leap from the theory of discounted cash flow, for example, to realize that you can use this method to evaluate any cash flow stream--a bond, a project, a sales strategy, etc.
Probably the two most valuable bodies of theory applicable to business are micro-economics and finance.The concepts of sunk cost, marginal cost, supply-demand, time value of money, internal rate of return and cost of capital are probably the most fundamental concepts underlying most business decision making. As important as developing an understanding of the concepts is developing the intellectual ability to apply the concepts in new business situations. The request for practical examples from students in some ways runs counter to the need to be able to apply micro-economics and finance theory widely.
I teach courses which the students describe as very "practical". That is actually not my intent. I may just be unintentionally disguising the theory better than most. Theory Rules!!