Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What: Peter Cohen, The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School: The Education of America’s Managerial Elite (Penguin Books, 1973)

Why: For those of you who want a dose of pure 1970 angst, here you go.  If you are genuinely interested in what it’s like to study for an MBA, there have got to be better choices than this. 

Every once in a while, if for no other reason than to placate my co-editor, I actually pick up and read a book that is directly on topic—something, say, with the word “business” in the title. A few days ago, while rooting around in boxes long ago consigned to the attic and until recently forgotten, I came across this book, which I had apparently read as a law student.  Perfect!

Except that it wasn’t. Oh sure, there is some engaging discussion here about decision-trees and other stuff B-school types learn in the ordinary course. But perhaps the most profound insight Cohen has to offer is to conclude, with respect to one case study, that the problem presented was “a bag of worms that’s intertwined.” Did he really have to earn an MBA to produce such piercing insights?

I have to admit, though, that the historian in me did find the cultural subtext of the book somewhat interesting. Cohen attended B-school during the dark days of 1970, and student protests, the first Earth Day and the Kent State incident feature prominently.

As a memoir of those times, the book does have some redeeming value. Taken out of its historical context? Not so much. This is not a book that has aged gracefully. I came of age during this period, but I was genuinely shocked by certain assumptions and stereotypes of that period, particularly regarding women in the business world. Here’s one guy, describing a coworker: “She was a young girl in her early forties.” Girl? Forties?  Really?  

I guess this only goes to show that, as a society, we have come some distance since those late Mad Men days.

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