Harvard Business School and collective madness

My dear sister-in-law, not an economist at all, heartily recommended to me What They Teach You At Harvard Business School, by Philip Delves Broughton. Finally I got around to it – this is a 2 or 3 commute book. It’s a very well written description of the author’s MBA course in the mid-2000s, and a mixture of compelling and repelling.

Compelling because the book is extremely well written and it’s also interesting to find out what they do teach at HBS. Repelling because this was the height of the boom and the ethos of many of the author’s classmates is rather shocking. Most wanted nothing more than to make money – jobs are ranked by remuneration, with venture capital firms at the top, followed by investment banking. I must be naive, but was terribly shocked – as was this book’s author – to learn that many students maximise the financial aid they get from HBS by buying an expensive car and parking their savings with their parents in order to minimise their apparent assets when applying.

HBS is famous for its case study method, and for the intensity with which students have to work. It emerges on the whole pretty well from this book, trying to instil business ethics and teaching entrepreneurship, although the book ends with a series of suggested changes ranging from barring professors with no business experience from teaching entrepreneurship to ending the brutal and counterproductive grading system.

On the other hand, the student body, at least in those boom years, seems very unappealing even seen through the diplomacy of the author. As one student puts it pithily: “If you want to change the world, get on a plane to fucking Darfur.” The MBA course is about money.

This book was published in mid-2008. There was clearly a kind of collective madness earlier in the noughties, facilitated by the tax code making debt interest tax deductible. I know that now, wearing my hindsight spectacles. But what, I wonder, do today’s Harvard MBA students aspire to?

What They Teach You at Harvard Business School: My Two Years Inside the Cauldron of Capitalism

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6 thoughts on “Harvard Business School and collective madness

  1. I’ve seen one of my students with this too! I was quite intrigued to hear your views but not surprised by your view. However, to put this in context, you should also remember that a fair proportion of all students probably act in an identical manner, from doctors downwards. A friend of mine who did 3 years of medicine at Oxford then dropped out during his clinical years in London and would argue that money was also a significant determinant of what student doctors were looking to specialize in.

    I’m afraid that I find the idea of people being valued/valuing themselves as making money as rather sad; any fool can make money. I just look at my former pupils…

    • Obviously I’ve grown old and grumpy – I finished my first degree in 1981 when a lot of my cohort were indeed looking at well-paid jobs in accountancy, law and the City, but an awful lot understood that there was a trade-off, and that intrinsic satisfaction, purpose, & vocation were ample rewards too. Oh dear.

      • As staff at UPenn, I’m closer to Wharton than Harvard – and I can tell you, it’s much scarier over here, Harvard actually having a reputation for nurturing social responsibility. But nonetheless, taking your closing rhetorical flourish straight-up, I’d venture, as a guess: to find the next generation of exploitable tax and legal loopholes.

        These are not good people, Ms. Coyle. And they’re what our current social framework elevates to leadership status, one way or another.

        • What a depressing observation. My son has just finished an economics degree. I thought I detected among his contemporaries a bit of a decline in interest in making a lot of money in investment banking, but maybe that’s just my wishful thinking.

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