Does Religion Belong in the B-School Curriculum?

Does Religion Belong in the B-School Curriculum?
Business schools say students should understand global cultures, yet course work on the world's religions is virtually nonexistent (Photograph by Godong/Getty Images)
Photograph by Godong/Getty Images

“I knew a fellow named Otto Kahn,” Groucho Marx once recalled. (Kahn was an extremely wealthy New Yorker who occasionally taught at Princeton and was a prominent donor to the Metropolitan Opera House.) “His close friend was Marshall P. Wilder, who was a hunchback.” One day, in the 1930’s, they passed a beautiful, newly constructed synagogue on Fifth Avenue and Kahn turned to Wilder and said, “You know, I used to be a Jew.” “Really?” said Wilder, “I used to be a hunchback.”

It’s a famous story that could be applied to disabilities or race relations or class—Wilder was a famous African-American actor—a diorama of core disparities of just about any kind. I am using the story here to underline a worthy goal that most top B-Schools struggle to achieve: “Global Minds.” We do, in fact, a lot to foster this ideal: We make certain that long periods of time are spent working or schooling abroad. We insist on learning the languages of emerging markets, and spending long periods immersed in exotic and challenging cultures. Dr. Judy Olian, Dean of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, insists that we learn more from abrasive experiences than blander ones: Mali over Monaco, Iceland over Ireland. I wholeheartedly agree.

I’ve become more and more aware of the promise and struggle to teach the global mind nowadays because I use every chance I get to ask faculty and administrators of management education programs why we don’t offer at least one course—not even required, just an elective—on the world’s religions. The most frequent response is a vacant stare and a flash return to our comfort zone, Monday Night Football.

I have a hunch that the problem inheres in that word, religion. A friend recently gave me a book—David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing—that upended that long-established secular part of me. The book starts off with the reactions of 18 American tourists visiting China, not looking forward to the evening’s scheduled lecture. They journeyed to China in order to learn why the West achieved dominance and success in all parts of the world. The  conclusion of the speaker, an urbane, highly respected Chinese scholar, is that the “Christian moral foundation was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.” Had Christianity reached far deeper into Chinese culture and society than most people inside or outside of China had suspected? The speaker’s own answer, based on new reporting, was a resounding “yes.”

China estimates that it has at least 25 million Christians, but new estimates set the figure closer to 80 million. All anyone can be sure of is that Christianity has grown at a staggering rate since 1979, when China began to relax the fierce restrictions on religious activity that had been imposed in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.

In any case, the accuracy of the numbers isn’t the cardinal issue here. I’m not a census-taker. But how can we educators claim credit for understanding, let alone teaching, the “global mind” without a single course on the impact of religion on every day life?

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE