Acton Institute Powerblog

The trivium of business school

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Note: This is the second in a series on developing a Christian mind in business school. You can find the intro post here.

When people ask me what business school was like, I’m tempted to say, “A lot like a medieval university.” Unfortunately, that comparison makes people think b-school is dark, musty, and full of monks—which is not quite what I mean.

In medieval universities, the three subjects that were considered the first three stages of learning were the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Our use of those terms, however, fails to convey the broader meaning they had in earlier centuries. In her excellent book on the trivium (Latin for “the three-fold way”), Sister Miriam Joseph explains:

Grammar is concerned with the thing as-it-is-symbolized,
Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known, and
Rhetoric is concerned with the thing as-it-is-communicated.

These three language arts, adds Sister Joseph, can be defined as they relate to reality and to each other. Similarly, while the arts learned in business school are very different from the classical trivium, every course can similarly be classified in a “three-fold way”:

Thing as-it-is-symbolized: Quantification (Accounting, Quantitative Analysis, Finance) – Most of what is being administered in business administration can be quantified, that is reduced to numbers (money, inventory, personnel, etc.). Classes in this area teach the student to better understand the relationship between the symbols (numbers) in order to improve decision-making.

Thing as-it-is-known: Orientation (Organizational Behavior, Operations Management, Economics, Information Technology, Business Law, Global/International focus (management/finance/marketing/etc.) – If you don’t know the difference between a supply chain and an S-corporation, these are the classes that fill in the gaps. About a third of the MBA program is comprised of courses like these that are intended to orient the student to the business and economic environment. Although there is a lot of overlap and interdependence with the other two areas, these courses primarily serve as introductions to various “things as-they-are-known” areas within the realm of business.

Thing as-it-is-communicated: Rhetoric (Business Communication, Marketing, Business Ethics, Strategy) – These are often considered the “soft” classes, not because they are easier than finance or accounting (though they certainly are that) but because they tend to focus on the non-quantitative aspects of business. These are also the courses were you learn to persuade others—investors, customers, suppliers, managers—to agree with your analysis, adopt your opinion, or follow your recommendation. Just as rhetoric is the master art of the classical trivium, for it presupposes and makes use of the other two, rhetoric is the master art of the business trivium. These classes are the true heart of business school since almost everything you learn in the program is focused on you eventually using your knowledge to persuade others.

While I believe this classification of business arts—quantification, orientation, rhetoric—provides a useful framework of understanding business school, I think it is essential to the task of developing a Christian mind in business school.

When we speak of a particular type of “mind”, as in the “scientific mind”, “secular mind” “Christian mind”, etc., we are referring to a set of notions, beliefs, attitudes, and mental orientations collectively accepted by a particular group. Therefore, when I speak in this series about developing a Christian mind in b-school I’m referring primarily to learning how to think Christianly about things as they are symbolized, things as they are known, and things as they are communicated. That is, how to think Christianly about the three business arts taught in business school: quantification, orientation, and rhetoric.

There is common misperception that being a Christian businessperson means merely being a person in business who behaves morally (i.e., like a Christian should). Oftentimes this is reduced to being nice, honest, friendly, etc. (because supposedly Jesus wants us to always be nice, honest, and friendly!). Christians should certainly behave in an ethically responsible manner, but that in itself does not distinguish us from non-believers, who can share our ethical norms. Indeed, there are many non-Christians in business who could put us believers to shame when it comes to exemplifying moral behavior. Behaving morally is important but it is not at all the same as thinking Christianly about business.

So what does it mean to thinking Christianly about business? In our next post we’ll take a closer look at that question and what it means to develop a Christian view on the business arts.

See Also: Part I

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).