We Ought to Read the Classics

Justin Crist Lee, Contributor

Justin Crist Lee (MBA ’21) expands the scope of an education in business.

We are told we live in unprecedented times. Today in our nation, we face an impending economic crisis, paired with ongoing concerns surrounding the future of our democracy. While each of these alone would seem a daunting challenge to tackle, these twin existential threats have been exacerbated further by the global Covid-19 pandemic. What we already knew, and what lurked just below the surface, we now face head on as we chart our path ahead. But even before the challenges of 2020 began, there was a widespread sense that things were amiss, and that there were worthwhile questions to explore about the ways in which we have organized our society today. 

Here at Harvard Business School, the Class of 2021 is acutely aware of those questions, and the tensions they stir. In February 2020, one month before the Covid-19 pandemic changed our way of life, members of our class attended an all-day summit called Viewpoints. The aim of the summit was to cover the varying perspectives of today’s most vexing global challenges. In the afternoon, as part of an interactive session entitled “Is Capitalism Broken?”, we were asked to electronically vote on a simple question. The screen before us read: “Is capitalism broken? Please vote now.” Amid an auditorium lit with the blue glow of smartphones, we each cast our votes. The nearly-1,000 person Harvard Business School Class of 2021 was split exactly 50:50.

The results of this referendum were meaningful to me, in light of the history of this institution as a shaper and guardian of capitalism as we know it today. Uncertainty about this paradigm had made its way inside the very ivory tower from which it hailed. So now, I ask, what is the duty and responsibility of Harvard Business School in building a way forward?

To answer that, it is helpful to examine the mission of the school and the structure of its instruction. The mission of Harvard Business School is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” It does so through a meticulously designed educational experience, with the RC (i.e., required curriculum) first-year Section at its core. In their second year, known as the EC (i.e., elective curriculum) year, students are free to pick from a wide array of courses to their liking. But Harvard Business School is unique in its design of the first year, which provides administration the full control to craft a mandatory curriculum of carefully curated courses and topics which each and every graduate must pass to earn a degree. It is through this mechanism that Harvard Business School has the power to impact that very world into which its educated leaders emerge.

Again, we return to the question, “is capitalism broken?” To answer that, one must first endeavor to actually understand what capitalism is. One must navigate its various manifestations and forms, contextualizing it in its history and changes over time. One must consider its critiques and alternatives, engaging in exploration with these theories and their practice. One must survey the landscape, taking stock of gains but also of deficits. A required component of the first-year curriculum could do just that. But the current curriculum at Harvard Business School does not test for aptitude in this regard, nor does it require critical engagement with these theories in question. Instead, it creates practitioners of a family of theories largely left unexamined.

For Harvard Business School to best educate leaders who make a difference in the world, we ought to read the classics. In tandem with the case method, we ought to engage with capitalism on a theoretical level too. We need a shared set of definitions, an agreed upon way of first describing the world around us, so that we might then get off to the meaningful work of changing that world for the better. We ought to read Smith, Locke, and Hobbes, Marx, Engles, and Rand, Friedman, Piketty, and Polanyi, just to name a few.

But, alas. “We have not read these authors; we should consider their arguments preposterous if they were to fall into our hands. Nevertheless we should not, I fancy, think as we do, if Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Paley, Adam Smith, Bentham, and Miss Martineau had not thought and written as they did. A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind. I do not know which makes a man more conservative – to know nothing but the present, or nothing but the past.”

John Meynard Keynes’ interwar thoughts still ring true today. I wish for you all, just as he did, an emancipation of the mind. I write, again just as he did, at a time of transition. While we are told we live in unprecedented times, generations before us have faced their futures with no more certainty than we face our own. My hope is that we take Keynes’ words to heart, and that by learning the theoretical foundations of today’s paradigms, we will be better equipped to draw a line from that past to our present, and work together in building our future.

Justin Crist Lee (MBA ’21) came to HBS after five years in the consumer financial services industry. He studied economics and international relations at Brown University and believes passionately in the need to balance theory and praxis.