Educating The Elite: Ethics, Economics, And Inequality In America’S Most Prestigious Business Schools

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Educating The Elite: Ethics, Economics, And Inequality In America’S Most Prestigious Business Schools

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Today the distribution of wealth in the United States has diverged to mirror levels of inequality not experienced since the early 20th century. In addition to overall wealth, the distribution of income has also become increasingly unequal. This trend has resulted in the rise of what Thomas Piketty (2014) calls supermanagers—top executives of large firms who have managed to obtain unprecedented compensation for their labor; and members of the economic elite are now much more likely to be members of the professional elite who tend to eschew a class narrative in favor of identifying as the best and brightest (Ho, 2009; Khan, 2010, Khan, 2012; Rivera, 2016). This explanation for their success, which relies heavily on notions of meritocracy and specific ideas about fairness, reflects a change in the way society determines winners and losers (Guinier, 2015). Institutions of higher education, particularly those that are most elite, play a prominent role in elite reproduction (Khan, 2012a; Khurana, 2010) as well as in the selection of members of the professional elite. This dissertation uses ethnographic methods to explore how prestigious business schools reproduce culture and social class, and how the MBA experience provides students with a worldview that justifies the existence of severe inequality. I draw upon data collected over 14 months, including 34 semi-structured interviews with students and graduates of prestigious business schools, 10 informal but in-depth conversations with business school professors, field notes related to the attendance of MBA class sessions and social events, and promotional and curricular materials. Results provide insights into the ways prestigious business schools train students to explain and justify decisions about business and ethical issues in specific ways through institutional norms related to curriculum and pedagogy; how the institutions understand and deal with diversity; and how the MBA experience beseeches students to value certain professions and lifestyles over others, despite inherent contradictions in this value system. I find that prestigious—and particularly elite—business schools meet student expectations by providing them with clear paths to high-prestige, high-paying jobs through the assignment of credibility via association with a prestigious university, as well as through access to a powerful alumni association and on-campus corporate recruitment. In addition to these transactional benefits, students typically experience a marked increase in self-confidence and make friends who come to comprise a close social network of similarly high-earners that helps to normalize the wealth most MBA graduates acquire and the lifestyles associated with high compensation. I also discuss how diversity is understood in prestigious business schools (typically as centered around national origin and prior professional experience), and how women and students of color experience MBA programs as gendered, raced, and classed individuals. Finally, I examine barriers to critical education and address curricular and pedagogical norms and their implications. Further, I find that the MBA students and graduates I spoke with referred to competing ideas about what it means to be successful; several were particularly ambivalent about the meaning of money, its relationship to their self-worth, and its significance to their professional trajectories.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. October 2019. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Timothy Lensmire. 1 computer file (PDF); iv, 292 pages.

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Shamash, Rebecca. (2019). Educating The Elite: Ethics, Economics, And Inequality In America’S Most Prestigious Business Schools. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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