MBA programmes in 'Crisis Management' discuss the difficulty of replicating disaster scenarios in the safety of the classroom.

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“There is one simple rule of the University’s activity: it need not concern itself with providing its students with experiences that are available in democratic society…” – Allan Bloom

Education is not often very practical. It is mostly theoretical, and when ‘applied’, usually hypothetical. I largely endorse the view that education shouldn’t try to do things that are done better in the outside world. One of my favourite educational theorists, Allan Bloom – about whom I wrote a piece the other week – stated famously that ‘there is one simple rule of the University’s activity: it need not concern itself with providing its students with experiences that are available in democratic society.’ For him, this meant confining the teachings of the Ivory Tower pretty much to history’s Great Books. Generally speaking, I also endorse this view.

However, something in a recent edition of The Economist caught my eye. It was an article on MBA programmes in ‘Crisis Management’, and discussed the difficulty of replicating disaster scenarios in the safety of the classroom. The topic’s relevance seems to have sprung from the fact that the ‘Journal of Management Education‘ had dedicated the whole of its February issue to this very question.

Queensland floods. Photo credit:  robstephaustralia/ Flickr

Queensland floods. Photo credit: robstephaustralia/ Flickr

Courses in the subject have been recently rejuvenated by the University of Queensland Business School and the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School, and their content is now apparently quite innovative. When a region of Queensland was flooded two years ago, students of the former institution – or at least those whose homes were not inundated with water – were encouraged to suggest relief strategies with inspiration provided by the raw data on their doorsteps (quite literally).

Volunteers help clear up Hurricane Sandy. Photo Credit: David Berkowitz/Flickr

Volunteers help clear up Hurricane Sandy. Photo Credit: David Berkowitz/Flickr

Unfortunately, this is the closest the new ideas come to involving students in genuine crises. Given the common (though naturally unfair) characterisation of Masters’ students as either incapable of entering the jobs market or simply wealthy enough to buy time in trying to do so, making them ‘deal’ with the hypothetical debts of non-existent companies, or encouraging them to interpret the definition of ‘crisis’ with more cultural elasticity, is unlikely to do them any favours. With such a well-spring of natural disasters happening all over the world, students taking these courses would benefit from being made to enter volunteering programmes, perhaps even on a managerial level, from which they’d gain academic credit and pick up real work experience in the process. You won’t learn to handle a genuine balance sheet crisis until you’re confronted with one, but getting one’s hands dirty, or delegating shifts for other people to do so, will actually impress an employer and get some constructive work done too.

Happily, crisis management is mostly restricted to Master’s degrees, enabling undergraduate students to live out their final years of juvenile indulgence in the traditionally carefree manner – as one hopes they should. But if specialist courses are to have their deviation from the pure path of Great Books excused, their grappling of real-world affairs must be pro-active, not simulated.