Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 650:
M.B.A.

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 650.

Today, business schools become less professional. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Luigi Salvaneschi came to America from Italy in 1959. He'd been educated in the classics. He found work frying hamburgers at McDonald's. In four months he was running the place.

He went on to become a senior executive at McDonald's. Next he took a vice presidency with Kentucky Fried Chicken. He finally retired as President of Blockbuster Entertainment.

Now Forbes Magazine runs two articles. One's about Salvaneschi. The other is about the declining fortunes of the fancy, expensive MBA programs. Through the mid-50s, businesses snapped up MBAs from prestige schools.

Now those students have a tougher time finding jobs. Companies are weeding out their middle management. Many companies feel that a good student with a bachelor's degree is a better investment.

Business schools grew complacent with success in the mid- 80's. They had plenty of students. Their graduates drew high salaries. They stopped asking what America really needed and whether they provided it. At first, smug faculty didn't react fast enough.

Now Salvaneschi addresses the question. He claims that business schools have been training narrow-minded professionals. Graduate schools have only made that trend worse, he says.

So what's missing? Languages, literature, and culture, says Salvaneschi. He's read classical Latin daily all his life. Each time he went into a new country for McDonalds, he first learned its language and its history. He tells us,

I did not think I would understand the markets if I did not understand the inner thoughts of the people that formed those markets.

He says you can learn to build a business by reading Dante. In The Divine Comedy, Dante builds a whole universe. He thinks through all the details. Literature will give you that overarching structural sense. Balance sheets alone cannot.

Salvaneschi retired early. Now he's teaching in a young business school in Florida. They're building a new undergraduate curriculum. They require two foreign languages. They give courses in the politics and culture of other countries. So the faculty of our business schools swing into gear. They're making changes.

But those changes have a fascinating quality. They move back toward traditional liberal education. At its best, business builds a country's culture. And that's never the work of a detached professional. In the end, Salvaneschi simply reminds us that the creative mind is the fully human mind.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Meeks, F., Dante, M.B.A.; and Linden, D.W., Brennan, J., and Lane, R., Another Boom Ends. Forbes, January 20, 1992, pp. 114 and 76-80.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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