Would a philosopher make a better banker? – an unexpected question for the fifty first-year students who just began their first week at Manchester Business School. “Well, I personally believe that philosophy strongly helps you become a banker who can make more rational decisions, think more critically as a financial adviser, and give better quality advice.” However, one argued, “The bank doesn’t follow a moral framework but technical one, so I don’t see how the philosopher could play a role in making better decisions.” On the contrary, another defends, “philosophy gives you an extra process – a way of thinking about things, and helps you analyse decisions.” For two hours, the inquiry continued to build on topics of independent critical thinking and how to make better decisions.
And while this excerpt would typically describe a philosophy course, it reverberates far from the ivory towers or the halls of the humanities – instead, this inquiry echoes from the halls of Manchester Business School, where a new seminar in Auditing and Accounting is being piloted as part of the undergraduate business courses – Philosophy for Accountancy. What makes these monthly seminars unique is their ability to provide students with the time, space and the democratic discourse – delving in philosophical questions of value and purpose, challenging knowledge and beliefs, and giving the opportunity to reflect and change opinions (in contrast to debate). Unfortunately, such topics for deeper thought are not at the centre of attention in business schools, who still foster a ‘survival of the fittest’ view of business and finance.
It is fair to say that many other business schools are now re-thinking their curricula, and widening the breadth with courses in responsibility, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. The more inventive ones are those bringing in philosophy and the arts to invigorate the dominant business mindsets. Some professional programmes in accountancy (Ponemon, 1994; Lau, 2009) and dentistry (Bebeau, 2006) have also argued for the use of moral dilemmas and/or case studies in improving moral reasoning in young professions. While, we argue that no educational programme can guarantee morality, we see the need to approach the learning process holistically – from a personal and a systems perspective.
To support this vision, AuditFutures has partnered with Manchester Business School to rethink the accounting education and pilot a new approach that combines the breadth of the liberal arts with the depth of philosophical inquiry. With these sessions, we do not just aim to improve knowledge and skills through solving dilemmas and case studies, on paper. Instead, with content-oriented facilitation, the sessions work to holistically impact students’ personal development, sensitivity and reasoning capacities. In order to nurture this development, we host a safe community space, which regularly and actively engages in philosophical discussions, problem-solving and teamwork.
Simulating the agora of ancient Athens, our university sessions aim to become an integrated component of the accountancy curriculum, and engage students in independent critical thinking through breadth of philosophical inquiry in a democratic space. We help students unpack complex concepts, embrace humility and build tools for critical reasoning and reflection. Furthermore, it provides students the essential tools to think philosophically about knowledge construction, their identity, decision-making processes and their professional and social roles. We will push the boundaries of professional knowledge, challenge and re-think the relationship between the individual, society and the system.
We are happy to be working with such a cosmopolitan group of students, who are so willing to participate. The feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive:
It opened my eyes and mind to further think about the purpose of accounting in this world and how I can use it to inspire change
It was definitely a good eye opener and it really got me thinking about important issues I have not considered.
This vision is hard to achieve if we still have business schools marketing themselves based upon media rankings, in which individual salary is the main metric, and where employers focus on technical knowledge. We need to rethink the dynamic between academia and practice, and the leadership skills of the next generation of professionals. In the coming months, we hope to share our learnings and engage in a discussion with more academics.
Let us inspire the world of finance with the love of wisdom.
Plamena Pehlivanova is a co-facilitator for the Philosophy for Accountancy programme. She is a visiting lecturer on ‘Philosophy of Education’ at University of Roehampton, a Doctorate Researcher at the Institute of Education, and an Associate with the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry (SAPERE).