B-school Book Club

Broadening students’ thinking through nonbusiness reading

From the Spring 2010 edition of Vanderbilt Business

A version of this article originally appeared in Forbes on Dec. 21, 2009.

As a business-school dean—the hardest job I’ve ever had—I find that complex questions keep me up at night and rattle around my brain while I’m hanging in the sky on a long flight.

I don’t mean the kinds of clear-cut matters that come up in finance or operations classes, but rather issues of working with and aligning groups whose motivations and needs differ dramatically and sometimes conflict. In business everyone in an organization theoretically works toward a clear, shared goal. In life, including my experience running a business school, we often face more difficult and nuanced challenges that require deeper consideration and understanding of the human condition.

Bradford started the book club in an effort to deepen students’ understanding of history, world politics, religion and societal conflicts.
Bradford started the book club in an effort to deepen students’ understanding of history, world politics, religion and societal conflicts.

When I’m trying to sort out that kind of thorny issue, I’m glad I can draw on a world view that has been broadened by more than 30 years of corporate life, work and travel—and by my passionate avocations of music, art and reading. I hope that the perspective I’ve developed leads me to more thoughtful decision-making.

That’s why, whenever I have the chance, I turn on the reading light and dive into books that challenge my intellectual understanding. It was during one of those plane-ride intellectual inquiries that another kind of light bulb came on: Shouldn’t business students do the same? How might we pull them back from their intense concentration on business to look at the larger world, and at themselves as part of the world community? Shouldn’t we, as their educators, encourage them to delve into books, including nonbusiness books, that open their minds? What if we gave Vanderbilt students a place to bounce around the ideas that would raise? Could we get them to read books not just for credit but for the pure joy of learning?

Such were the humble beginnings of the Dean’s Book Club, a discussion of current books that’s open to all interested participants at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

In my role as Dean, I get fabulous opportunities to meet with many of the world’s great business and nonprofit leaders, with executives and entrepreneurs of all kinds. When we discuss their particular industries or enterprises, the conversation often turns to the preparedness of America’s business-school graduates for work life. Employers rightly assume that excellent business programs attract candidates who have the intellectual DNA to study and really learn. The best, like Vanderbilt, provide deep understanding in finance, economics, accounting, marketing, operations management, strategy and other de rigueur business subjects. But the big question is how we prepare graduates for the complex, sometimes ambiguous environments they’ll encounter after their studies. It’s increasingly clear that graduates who have not only analytical ability but also perspective and wisdom will win the day.

We work hard to help our students gain the perspective that leads to complex problem-solving skills. We offer classes on everything from teamwork and leadership to negotiations, decision theory and cross-border, cross-cultural business methodology. Is that enough? I don’t think so.

Students read one book per mod and then meet to discuss their favorite passages.
Students read one book per mod and then meet to discuss their favorite passages.

I believe that people with a broad base of education and knowledge make the best employees and the strongest leaders. We need to help them find intellectual balance while focusing on a particular business discipline. B-school students, like busy professionals, can get too focused and specialized. In the Dean’s Book Club they get to supplement their studies with reading that may help them deepen their understanding of history, world politics, religion and societal conflicts.

I don’t look just for business books or books that promote one main idea with hundreds of examples and anecdotes. We read works that challenge us to think of the world in different ways. We debate the issues they raise. If we get uncomfortable in the process, so much the better.

A great example is River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. A young Ivy League graduate goes to a coal mining town in China for a couple of years’ teaching experience. He ends up finding himself behaving as the quintessential ugly American, overreacting to an insult. I thought it was telling that the author would share such a less-than-flattering story about himself. My students have liked it, too, and I’ve found that each person’s experience with the book—with any book—is different. Sharing those differences adds richness to our discussions.

We read one book in each mod, which is our half-semester academic unit. I have found the club to be very self-selective, attracting students who are motivated enough and organized enough to get all their work done and want to read books for pleasure on the side. During our discussions, we pick favorite passages. We criticize. We ask the ultimate marketing question: Would you recommend this book? Sometimes students tell me they didn’t like a book, but it changed their way of looking at something. Ultimately that’s our goal.

From Hot, Flat & Crowded, A Post-American World and Black Swan, to Factory Girls, The Colossal Failure of Common Sense and River Town, it has been a highly successful experiment.

I’ve been impressed at how in discussing the points of view and ideas propounded by various authors, the students have gained insight into complex social, business and life problems. You could argue that teaching perspective isn’t a business school’s responsibility, but I’d disagree. If gaining experience through extracurricular reading improves our students’ sense of understanding, their common sense and their judgment, then we’ve achieved our goal.

We should all force ourselves into reading and seeing and doing things outside our common experience. That’s the message I want my students to take away from this experience. And here’s a little secret that I haven’t been able to hide from them: It is pure fun. Reading is a joy, and discussing a text with fellow seekers, no matter what the differences are within a group, is exhilarating.

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