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Will Business School Extinguish Your Spark?

A Stanford Business School professor concedes that biz schools often kill the passion and creativity of students. So should you avoid higher ed?

Business schools get a lot of flak, mostly for their exorbitant cost, but also due to a feeling among some in the world of entrepreneurship that the experience is simply a waste of time. From author Seth Godin to Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake plenty of prominent voices have said would-be business owners are better off getting their hands dirty by actually starting a company rather than studying the theory of how it’s done (although there are dissenters to this view).  

But perhaps business school isn't just useless—it may be actually actively harmful. That's the view discussed not long ago on the always-interesting blog of Stanford Business School professor and author Bob Sutton. The post takes the form of a meditation on an interview with organizational theorist Jim March by Apple's head of human resources, Joel Podolny, which recently appeared in a management journal. In it, March argues that business school is a passion killer:

My experience with business school students is that those who possess an instinct for joy, passion, and beauty often learn to suppress their expression by virtue of a sense that such instincts are unwelcome both in business schools and in business, thereby making the sense self-confirming.

Sutton sadly acknowledges that, in his experience as an educator, business school does extinguish the creative spark of students far too frequently, and ends with a plea for educators to consider this question: "What can be done to educate people without turning them into emotionally repressed and joyless clones?"

The problem of education being counter to our more creative impulses isn't confined to business schools, of course. Psychology research has shown that teachers of all stripes generally dislike creative pupils and even back in the 19th century Mark Twain was memorably expressing his skepticism about formal schooling (and enthusiasm for self-directed exploration).

But even if everyone from Seth Godin and Sutton to Twain is correct and formal education is often stifling to creativity, what’s the takeaway? Can schools, by their very nature institutions of mass production, do anything to avoid suppressing their students’ nonconformist spirit? And if they can't completely eliminate this tendency towards repression, can any but the most driven and talented would-be entrepreneurs afford to skip out on an experience that is still highly correlated with increased earnings and success?

What's your take: Is an MBA or even a college degree a necessary way station for all but the most exceptionally talented young entrepreneurs, or a soul-killing passion extinguisher to be avoided by any aspiring trailblazer? 

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Last updated: Dec 28, 2011

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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