“Reply” to William Pitsenberger

Profession 2000: 186-88. This reply is in response to a “Letter to the Editor” by William Pitsenberger in Profession 2000 (185-86) regarding Alan Liu’s “Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work,” which had appeared in Profession 1999. The following is the full text of the “Reply.”

With his combined background in business management, business law, and graduate literary studies, William Pitsenberger is uniquely placed to follow up on my call for the academy and business to engage each other critically. “Suppose instead,” he says, “that the training in critical analysis with which those with advanced degrees in literature are armed were brought into the business community in a way that offered that community new kinds of value—understanding, for example, how business texts can be read, what contradictions exist between those texts and the desired message, and how to resolve those contradictions?”

This is an imaginative vision of humanities scholarship as a new missionary activity, one that attempts to offer business not just “skills” and “tools” (to which Pitzenberger admirably refuses to reduce the issues), not even just “value” (or, as he says later, “best use of academic training”), but instead “new kinds of value.” It would be interesting for a group of experienced managers and professionals from both sides of the business/academy divide to sit down together to judge whether this idea has merit and how it could be implemented—whether in a consultancy, training workshop, internship program, or something else.

I would like to take the occasion here, however, of putting Pitsenberger’s prescription in broader perspective. If the goal is to offer business the critical understanding it needs to make wise use of the texts of contemporary management literature—whose now ample and influential body of works is by turns insightful, cruel, heedless, and shallow—then the best general term I know for such an enterprise is still education. In this light, what Pitsenberger’s suggestions makes me wonder about is the very role of education today. In the “knowledge economy,” education occurs across a whole lifetime in an unprecedented variety of social sectors, institutions, and media—not just schools, community colleges, and universities, for instance, but also businesses, broadcast media, the Internet, even the manuals or “tutorials” that accompany software applications. Education, in other words, is now a decentralized field where no one institution any longer individually corners the market and where the sheer dispersion of the kinds and scales of learning—all the way from programs leading to degrees to CNN “factoids” leading only to the next commercial—is dizzying. Given this context, I think, the relevant question becomes: where can society most responsibly and effectively place the training in critical analysis that Pitzenberger suggests? Is it in consultancies or reading groups (workshops, team exercises, and focus groups) within corporations? Is it within the academy in humanities departments, on the hoary theory that the best way to insert critical understanding in society is to teach well the students destined to enter that society? (The humanities could thus teach contemporary management theory with the same critical perspective it brings to any other past theory of civilization, which is what management theory really is in its grandest ambition.) Or, because of the importance to business of non-textual knowledges not easily amenable to learning “how business texts can be read” (a point I owe to my colleague, Christopher Newfield, who also studies business and the academy), should we instead look to the sciences to develop courses on the critical understanding of numerical analysis or to the media industry to sponsor programs on the critical use of images and music? Perhaps the best question: how can society create the most inclusive, flexible, and intelligently interrelated mix of such options to take care of all its citizens hungry to “know”?

None of these questions are rhetorical; all are open. I suspect that they will not be solved from the top down by adding more representatives from government, media, etc., to the panel of business and education managers I imagined above. Rather, the work will begin from the bottom—through efforts by those like Pitzenberger who might want to try innovating a business training workshop here or an internship program there; and also by those working within the academy to introduce works of business literature among other works we ask students to read critically. (See the following course on “The Culture of Information” for my own example:

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