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The Education Of A Small Businessperson

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It is that loveliest time of the year on college campuses -- commencement -- a good season to think about how critical our colleges and universities will be in the years ahead. The challenge of the technology revolution cannot be met without an enormous national effort to upgrade skills. But whatever efforts we make to expand our technology curriculum should be made in tandem with a step-up in the quality and level of support for the liberal arts. Without a strong liberal arts program, the drive to sustain a self-governing, free enterprise system will falter.

My own 40-year commitment to small business has always been based on the liberal arts values and perspectives offered to me by some remarkable teachers. Together, these individuals gave me the philosophical underpinnings of my small business conviction.

Between February 1938 and June 1942, I studied at New York University's Washington Square College of Arts and Sciences, the New School for Social Research, and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. The values that remain with me after almost half a century come very substantially from the dozen or so teachers who stand out from the 40 or 50 who taught me.

Sidney Hook's course, "Philosophy of History and Civilization," was a mind-stretching review of theories of social change, and it permanently immunized me against simple-minded, deterministic views of politics. I learned how to approach the central problem for every activist: the difference between a necessary and acceptable compromise and an intolerable sell-out of principle.

Harold D. Lasswell was a leading political scientist and an effective man of public affairs. The nature and uses of power were his central interests. His two most memorable ideas were: Our system can be made to work only by those willing to learn the mechanics of its decision-making processes. And, an understanding of the emotional and nonrational elements in human beings is essential if one hopes to comprehend political behavior.

James Burnham is best known for his book The Managerial Revolution and as a founding editor of William F. Buckley Jr.'s conservative political journal, National Review. Yet I remember him best as a magnificent teacher of one course on aesthetics and one on the thought and literature of the Renaissance. He left me with a sense of the identity between innovation and the creative process, whether the end product is a painting, a technology, or a new law.

Economics was my major. A course taught by Bruce Smith influenced me most. In one class, he developed a compelling, graphic model to describe how pressure groups influence public policy. No group on Smith's chart represented small business, and one student asked what group spoke for that constituency.

"Well," he said, "there really aren't any effective small business groups, if the criterion is whether or not such a group would support small business when its interests differ from big business." The longer I thought about it, the more important it seemed to me for small business to acquire a genuinely independent organizational base.

Small business was still a minor concern for me. My interests were in the emerging field of communications research -- the study of the mass media.

My journalism-related studies made me think about the misuse of the media by concentrated control, whether government or business. As I got to know John Chamberlain and Herbert Brucker at Columbia, that issue linked up with the larger questions of economic diversity and entrepreneurship. Chamberlain was a mine of information about business. He wrote for Fortune but had an abiding interest in the early Yankee entrepreneurs, The Enterprising Americans, as he called them in a 1963 book on the subject. With Brucker, I would talk at length about the impact FM radio and television would have on competition in the newspaper and magazine business.

Two postgraduate staff assignments extended my list of memorable teachers. In 1945, Time Inc. funded a private Commission on Freedom of the Press whose chairman was Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago and noted educational theorist.

Freedom of speech presupposes that the competition of ideas will allow truth to emerge. I concluded that this held true for the business world as well. To the extent there is competition in the marketplace -- and that means the extent to which small business flourishes and new businesses are formed -- there are better products, better prices, and a more effective economy.

In 1947, I was director of research for President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights. There my education was furthered by 15 other distinguished Americans including the committee's chairman, General Electric Co. president Charles Wilson. The committee was concerned with equality of individual economic opportunity. And as S. I. Hayakawa, later senator from California, pointed out, "Small business has been the first rung on the ladder upward for every minority group in the nation's history." The larger the small business sector, I concluded, the more equality of opportunity we have for individuals and the safer our freedom of expression is from abuse. Small business fosters creativity and innovation. It is a bulwark against concentration and the remorseless abuses of power to which that leads.

The liberal arts perspectives I got from my teachers maximizes the prospects for the good society, for the happiness of men and women. And the economic diversity secured by small business provides the environment in which those values flourish. TThe liberal arts perspectives I got from my teachers maximizes the prospects for the good society, for the happiness of men and women. And the economic diversity secured by small business provides the environment in which those values flourish.

Last updated: Jun 1, 1983




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