Behind every great business is an even greater idea — or two, says professor Jeff McNair.
In his Business Administration 150 class, students explore the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and more. Each one, McNair says, has contributed to the study of business and economics.
“It could be taught out of the philosophy department or somewhere else, but it’s really ideas with a focus. I think people think, ‘Business, well it’s going to be profit, profit, profit,’ and so forth. We talk about the role of profit in business, but we talk as much as anything about ‘the other,’ the nonprofit part of business and commerce,” McNair says.
McNair holds two bachelor’s from Berkeley: one in Electrical Engineering, the other in Computer Science, and an MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia with enough credits to qualify for a bachelor’s in Literature. In addition to his academic credentials, McNair brings professional experience to his classroom, with 28 years in upper management at Hewlett-Packard, where he did “a little bit of everything,” from startup management to overseeing the division of technology.
“I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” he says and smiles.
The goal of the class, McNair says, isn’t to entrench students in one way of thinking, but to expose them to a diversity of ideas, so they can come to their own conclusions. He gives extra credit to students who can link together two different ideas on a test.
“We can’t live without thinking the whole thing through — both sides of it,” he says.
In class, students read from great writers and thinkers and study speeches and contemporary business practices. McNair hopes that by teaching the foundational thinking behind business, students will not only understand where these ideas come from, but how to better navigate a world full of diverse thinking.
“Read not to contradict, nor to believe, but to weigh and consider,” McNair reads. The quote, from Francis Bacon, is one of his favorites. “If each of us could listen to both of the extremes in our current political polarization and do it in this way, perhaps the polarization would begin to fade. Not bad advice from the year 1600,” he concludes.
BA 150 – Foundations of Business Thought
Jeff McNair, Lecturer in Management
This class teaches students the fundamental thinking that drives business. Students learn the cultural, historical and philosophical thoughts surrounding business issues throughout the ages.
The Ultimate Question for the Class:
Is the purpose of a business just to make money or does a business have other responsibilities as well?
McNair recommends these books, ideas and movies for continuing studies into the foundations of business thought:
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (Book)
- Irrational Exuberance by Robert J. Shiller (Book)
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Book)
- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (Book)
- The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (Book)
- Marx’s “Theory of Alienation” (Idea)
- Twelve O’Clock High (Movie)
- The Merchant of Venice (Play)