Business School

Using Art to Rethink Business Education

November 3, 2021  • Ideas Worth Teaching

From workplace conversations about racial equity to the recent wave of resignations and walk-outs, events of the past year have foregrounded the intersection of business and societal values. Too often, however, business education gives limited space for future leaders to question societal values—or, for that matter, their own.

College of Charleston’s Oscar Jerome Stewart is working to change that. Last year, Stewart was recognized with an Aspen Institute Business & Society Ideas Worth Teaching Award for his “Seminar in Business and Society.” The course’s innovative pedagogy places a heavy focus on encouraging students’ creativity—even inviting them to paint. It’s all part of encouraging rising leaders to clarify the values that will shape their careers and their lives.

We spoke with Professor Stewart about this unique method, the meaning of the “Great Resignation,” and more.

Your course uses creative approaches to help students address topics ranging from sustainability to labor rights to tough conversations in the workplace. Can you speak to how you see a role for creativity in solving challenging business issuesand how that is reflected in the course pedagogy?

Creativity in our pedagogy, as business faculty in particular, is a tool to rethink business education. One of the more visible ways that I have tried to awaken students’ creativity in my teaching is using various art projects. The process of creating works of art allows students to critically reflect on business practices and concepts. One of the art projects I have facilitated recently allows students to explore their values in a deeper way. The assignment is to create a work of art that embodies the students’ values. College students have often not given thought to their values before my class, so this project awakens the values that are important to them; making them more likely to act on those values in difficult situations. The final product is an art gallery exhibit that creates an even deeper exploration of student values as they explain their personal art to their peers.

The learning outcomes of this art project are two-fold. First, students develop a greater sense of the values that they bring with them into their careers. Second, students develop a greater understanding of the values dissonance among organizations and their leaders, helping students develop a critical consciousness toward course material and subsequently, their careers. Ultimately, this assignment is designed to inspire students to become leaders in purpose-drive organizations.

This fall we’re seeing a surge of worker activism, from the Google Whistleblower to the labor actions referred to as “Striketober” and the wave of quits known as “The Great Resignation.” What do these events tell us about the changing nature of work, and how business leaders should manage organizations?

They tell us something interesting, that is for sure. As we are well aware of at this point, in the U.S. the employee quit rate is at an all-time high and has been that way since Spring 2021. There are likely a multitude of explanations for the Great Resignation, and we all have our own hypotheses. What is heartening, however, is that I have heard less over the past few months about a supposed worker shortage and much more about the employee quit rate. The implication, and one that that resonates with me, is that this is less about a shortage of workers and more about a shortage of quality employers. For some combination of reasons, with the Pandemic at the center of those reasons, workers may finally be beginning to opt out of employers’ mistreatment of their labor force. Workers just might be regaining some power from employers.

Importantly, the Great Resignation has occurred disproportionately in industries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as healthcare and hospitality. Perhaps most importantly, this phenomenon has been driven by the most over-exploited group of workers in the U.S.women.

If this information gives us any lessons for leaders, those lessons lie in understanding the limits of an economic system built on unfair treatment. While it certainly may be possible for employers to again revert to this system, business leaders can no longer ignore the fact that workers have been exploited so much by employersduring a Pandemic no lessthat they would rather quit and risk financial insecurity than work under current conditions. If I were a business leader, the big lesson for me would be to re-center my business on human dignity.

We’ve also seen growing commitments from corporations around diversity, but by many metrics the needle has moved very little. Your course explores the power embedded within business and how that effects both individuals and societyhow might traditional power structures in business be holding us back from real progress? What are the alternatives?

Well, this is straightforward. As I mentioned, traditional power structures in liberal market economies like the U.S. have leaned so far in favor of short-term corporate interests that while corporate profits have boomed, many other important outcomes, from maintaining the natural environment to the ability of workers to secure reliable and affordable housing, have fallen by the wayside.

Alternatives abound in the world. A more equitable distribution of power in a capitalist society would require a shift toward a more robust social democracy. Such a change would create more accountability for corporations. Fortunately, we have sufficient data on countries that place greater emphasis on social democratic governance and these countries more successfully balance power between business and society.

In countries like the United States, what might be more likely in the near-term is a shift in how businesses use their power, rather than a shift in power itself. Businesses are increasingly adopting more responsible business practices worldwide. This increased responsibility includes a greater focus on trying to create business practices that do not degrade the natural environment, management practices centered on worker dignity, and of the necessity of leading a purpose-driven business.

As alumni from your course go into leadership positions across industries and sectors, what is the one lesson that you hope will stick with them throughout their careers?

I appreciate this question. I have thought a lot about this over the past couple of years as I approach the end of my first decade teaching. What comes to mind today (my answer on this changes) is that I hope my students become less certain of the “right” answers and capital T “Truths” and instead embrace a greater curiosity and wonder about the world.

A constant curiosity and wonder make us more compassionate, empathetic, and open to difficult truths (small “t”). Imagine a world full of business leaders with such capacity. Business leaders who routinely imagine a capitalism that does not pilfer the Earth or hyper-exploit its workers. Business leaders who are consistently curious about how to create products and services that make society better. By awakening a greater sense of curiosity and wonder in our students, this is possible.

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