A Corrective Course Of Action
Monday, April 25, 2011
Posted by: Matthew Montoya
By Timothy M. Stearns
Coleman Foundation Chairholder in Entrepreneurial Studies and Founder/Executive Director of the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
California State University, Fresno, CA
Like many of you, I opted for the "extended stay” path in higher education. Three large public universities later, I had a bachelor, masters, and doctorate mounted on my wall. The array of courses available was quite incredible. Covering about every conceivable topic, from the abstract to the applied, higher education in the United States is truly an incredible institution – an institution that is the single most important system for building long-term economic growth. Without an educated populace, the road to economic opportunity is limited.
Opportunity is a defining feature of the American experience. We have built it into the fabric of our culture. To the world, we are the "land of opportunity,” coveted by those seeking to apply their initiative and talent to creative endeavors. Whether in the arts, commerce, religion, or expression, the United States provides a setting for innovative talent to flourish. No single institution reflects opportunity more than higher education with promises of intellectual and applied training that can be translated into productive work.
I am willing to bet my tenure that not once during my years as a student in three large public universities was a course in entrepreneurship offered. This may generate a "so what” response from some, but let me frame this in a way that uncovers a tragic situation that is either an outcome of omission or commission.
We know the data about wealth generation. It falls almost entirely on the entrepreneurial class. Entrepreneurs pursue risk through uncovering opportunity and exposing inefficiencies in the market. We know that rewarding entrepreneurial behavior is critical to an innovative economy; it is the catalyst that drives "creative destruction.” And it is through the success of entrepreneurs that economies expand, open new markets, and continually meet the needs of customers who have changing needs and wants.
A Late Start
So that said, how did we as a society build an elaborate system of education that is replicated by countries around the world but fails to include entrepreneurship in the curriculum? At any level from primary to doctoral? Granted, we are seeing this corrected, but keep in mind the correction had a slow beginning 200 years after the establishment of the Constitution and more than 150 years with the introduction of universal public education.
How and why the American educational system ignored or avoided imparting knowledge and skills to students about entrepreneurship is nothing short of stunning. A parallel would be our educational system ignoring science or engineering. As a key pillar for economic growth, entrepreneurship was discarded as either a pursuit for misfits or even the absurd notion that they are "born” and not "made.”
We know that shortly after World War II, higher education emerged as a more democratic institution through greater accessibility by the middle and working classes. This also coincided with an emphasis on the "professionalizing” of jobs into careers. The social sciences built programs around certification. Business schools moved away from teaching principles to greater focus on research, turning management into a "science.” Business schools became the engines for feeding the rapidly expanding corporate growth across the globe.
Bias Toward the Organization Man
An MBA emerged as the ticket to successful careers in corporate America with virtually all of the curricula geared towards a "corporate perspective.” The bias towards building a professional class of managers to run the rapidly expanding corporations certainly played a role in refusing to consider training young talent in the pursuit of self-employment.
Several scholars, such as William H. Whyte and Daniel Reisman noted a cultural shift during this period with a societal emphasis on rewarding those who were "other-directed” pursuing a career as an "organization man.” The "inner-directed” and "entrepreneur man” was viewed in the culture as having lesser value and a relic of a prior era. Hence, an academic pursuit in entrepreneurship as coursework or a field of study was looked upon as contradictory and out of step with the status quo.
Entrepreneurship did not begin to emerge in academics as a discipline until the 1970s with the development of an interest group in the Academy of Management. And not surprisingly, this was a group of passionate scholars who lacked formal training in the field. Rather they shared a common understanding that the lack of a formal system for understanding entrepreneurship had long been neglected and that it had a proper role in higher education both as a field of study and as an avenue for building a new generation of entrepreneurs.
We know that much has happened since then. Entrepreneurship is now represented fully in the Academy of Management as a research discipline. Professional organizations such as USASBE have built membership around both teaching and research in the field. NACCE continues to nurture and support the growth of entrepreneurship curricula in community colleges. And NFTE has brought entrepreneurship into both high school and middle school education.
But we are still in the beginning stages of bringing entrepreneurship and the fundamentals of self-employment to their rightful place in higher education as integral parts of the knowledge and skills taught to all students, regardless of their ambitions and pursuits. This effort is not novel, as some may think. It is corrective.