Tales From Two `Bootcamps Of Capitalism'

I'll admit this at the start: I didn't much like business school, and a cursory examination of my academic transcript will reveal that the sentiment was mutual. For two years, I felt like a white rat trapped in some mysterious behavioral study--something to do with group dynamics, motivation strategies, and sleep deprivation. I learned a lot, but the process was weird.

Now, via two new books, I get to relive those days. Rapture! The first, Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA, is former Reagan speechwriter Peter M. Robinson's tale of his journey through Stanford University's MBA program. The second, Year One: An Intimate Look Inside Harvard Business School, Source of the Most Coveted Advanced Degree in the World, comes from Robert Reid, now a second-year student.

The basic plots are identical: A bunch of talented, hypermotivated young people are put in a classroom together. Driven mostly by a profound fear of failure, they work insanely hard for months on end. After a while, they realize they probably aren't going to fail and instead start worrying about finding jobs. A collective rush to the career-placement office ensues.

Well, no one ever said business school was sexy. Yet there is a mystique to these hallowed places: A striking number of their graduates, after all, turn out to be chief executives, investment banking heavies, and, generally, rich. But what actually goes on behind the ivied walls often isn't that interesting. Robinson and Reid both veer from academic theory and case studies to classroom hijinks and which pizza they had for dinner. It's entirely appropriate: B-school, at least year one, is nothing if not an obsession with the mundane.

There is, for one thing, the preoccupation with classroom seating: Front row is for losers; back row ("skydeck") is hip. Then there's the abiding fixation on speaking in class. "At every pause in the conversation, it was hands, hands, hands," Reid writes. "It became increasingly difficult to `get in'....My urgency was heightened by the fact that grades...depended so heavily on in-class commentary. And of course there was the natural desire to establish myself with my new peer group."

Reid understands, I think, that he was acting like an imbecile--which is pretty much par for the first-year course. Both books ably describe the panicky, self-absorbed struggle for academic and emotional survival at these "boot camps of capitalism." In this regard, Robinson, a self-confessed "poet" (B-school slang for liberal-arts types), suffers more than Reid, a former management consultant. No matter: Everyone is consumed.

Neither book matches two earlier entries in this genre: Peter Cohen's thoughtful, almost lyrical 1973 work, The Gospel According to Harvard Business School, and Fran Worden Henry's 1983 Toughing It Out at Harvard. The new accounts are both somewhat compromised by their use of half-real, composite characters, events, and conversations. And both authors lapse too often into cuteness, notably with annoying reproductions of regional and foreign mannerisms. In fact, the two are eerily similar in every way.

They do provide an up-to-date accounting of the state of the MBA. The most striking quality of this generation appears to be its sheer ambivalence. Cohen and Henry depicted themselves and their fellows as men and women of purpose who saw a top-notch business education as their passport to go out and change the business world. Reid and Robinson aren't so sure of themselves. Reid wonders whether Harvard, for him and his cohorts, is simply the inevitable terminus of a young life driven by competitiveness: "It seemed all too easy to heed the siren's song of the Lemming March...and then get pulled along for decades." He questions his personal and professional aspirations, "but in the end, it was hard to ignore the call of my peers' thundering feet."

Robinson, for his part, doesn't buy completely into a cynical professor's contention that "MBA degrees are union cards for yuppies"--that degrees from places such as Stanford merely signal to the job market which people are "good enough to get in." Robinson clearly comes out of school knowing more about business than when he entered. But he also recognizes the monetary value of his sheepskin, and his classmates don't seem very interested in more than that.

In truth, of course, many of these MBA grads will do great things with their lives. The people I went to school with were an impressive, creative, generally farsighted lot. Dozens already have started businesses of their own; several advise developing nations; one is running for lieutenant governor. Neither Reid nor Robinson captures that promise. They do, however, manage to humanize the experience--to demystify the institutions and the people within, even if they're describing just two top MBA programs among hundreds.

The problem with both books is the dreary subject. I remember the professor who told us, during our first-year funk: "Someday you'll look back on these days fondly. The real world is a lot tougher." He was wrong: The real world is fun. B-school was a grind.

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