This Tuesday will be my last lecture of the year; the academic year, that is. I am never quite sure about the academic calendar. The other day I had to ask one of the admins the date of my last class. I’ve been teaching for almost twenty years, and I still haven’t figured out the schedule. I told my class I am canceling all classes in July. They stared at me.
These are business students. They’ve been taught in their other classes that business is all about maximizing profit. This at a Jesuit university, no less. I tell them that’s not true, that it is illogical to believe so, and that you might as well say the purpose of life is eating. Sure, some people live to eat, but wouldn’t it be better if we ate just enough to support our real purpose?
What is our real purpose? I tell them they have to figure that out. I’ll help them by applying Aristotelian logic and existential reflection. I am not a fan of the Frankfurt School, but I appreciate Sartre’s emphasis on the fundamental project of the self. Just as long as students don’t get stuck there. We’ve all met people like that–self-consumed and superficial. I can see why you’d write a book called Nausea as in ad nauseam. Maybe it’s just the people I meet. I have to stop going to Jungian conferences.
As I prepare the last lecture, I want to make sure that students understand that the question applies to business as well; that is, what is the purpose of business? That’s the question all my classes work on. It is related to the larger question, what is business? Those are two big questions. Students tend to have narrow answers reinforced by their finance professors’ misreading of Adam Smith and popular culture. One student put it bluntly, “There’s no fame in being ethical.” This came from a student whose personal mission statement was replete with traditional virtues. I suppose I could have answered, “There’s no shame, either,” but I didn’t think fast enough.
Does he really desire fame? We all want recognition of some sort, but I refuse to believe we must lust after it. Still, people are fooled into thinking that Beyoncé and Prince and a host of other celebrities are more than human. I cringe at the idea of celebrities being divine, but isn’t that what marketing has made of them? Millions now worship at that temple.
The purpose of any business does not lie within the business but beyond it. The purpose of Starbuck’s, for instance, is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” If you do that and do it well, you make money. Even if, as in Starbuck’s case, the coffee is bitter.
Isn’t that what life is about–discovering something beyond the mundane that pushes us to create a better world? To arrive at truth? Do we really have to fight that battle again with a new generation about to enter the workforce? Shouldn’t they know this? Or am I the old, idealistic master of Go squaring off against younger, data-driven opponents fixated on money?
Maybe I am making too much of this. It wouldn’t be the first time. I just want my students to be free enough to make decisions for themselves and not live someone else’s dream. I want them to be human beings, not machines.
Ironically, John D. Rockefeller said it best when asked why he started Standard Oil: “I would rather be my own tyrant than have someone else tyranize me.”
Maybe I’ll open with that.