Entrepreneurs in Toy Land

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A brief news item in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 89%  of those business leaders polled in a Northeastern University survey believe that "colleges should increase teaching about entrepreneurship".  Given the fact that such corporate thinking has come to dominate current discourse on higher education and its purposes, it is worthy of a semiotic analysis, and I will sketch one out accordingly here. First let's be clear on the meaning of the word "entrepreneurship" itself so there isn't any confusion.  Entrepreneurship is the defining quality of an entrepreneur, and an entrepreneur is someone who founds and directs new business ventures.  Of course, when thinking of such people, names like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg always come to mind, and that, presumably, is what the business leaders surveyed in the Northeastern poll have in mind. Fine, I do not mean to challenge this ethos of corporate creativity.  It is consistent with a number of traditional American mythologies, including our valuing of individualism, self-reliance, and what used to be called the Protestant Work Ethic.  But the problem lies in two major contradictions that the survey does not mention, contradictions that become clear when we look at the larger cultural system within which entrepreneurship functions. The first contradiction lies in the fact that even as the entrepreneur is celebrated in corporate and educational discourse, the reality is that contemporary capitalism is becoming increasingly monopolistic.  For every successful entrepreneur there are countless entrepreneurs whose efforts have been wiped out by the giant companies that have already made it (just consider what Microsoft did to Netscape, or what Facebook did to MySpace, or, for that matter, what Sebastian Thrun once predicted about the fate of American universities in the era of the MOOC).  As the rules that were written in the Progressive Era to stem the monopoly capitalism of the late nineteenth century are loosened ever further (just look at the current controversy over FCC rules for the regulation of Internet ISP providers for an example of this trend), the odds against successful entrepreneurship are lengthening.  So for currently successful business leaders to urge today's students to be more entrepreneurial seems more than a little problematic.  It's like urging students to pursue an information technology education and then sending a significant portion of our IT jobs offshore.  This is a contradiction so deep that it could be called a betrayal. But, as I say, there is a second contradiction.  Let's recall that an entrepreneur is a hard-working, self-reliant individualist.  But at the very same time that American business leaders are calling for more entrepreneurial education, it is they, bolstered by billions of advertising and marketing dollars, who have created a society of passive consumerism and pleasure seeking hedonism.  Those of us in education who would like to see our students work hard and think critically are swimming upstream against an always-on entertainment society wherein instant gratification and 24/7-join-the-crowd social networking are significant obstacles to student success.  You can't work effectively and individually when you are constantly sending selfies to Instagram, listening to music, texting, updating your Facebook page, downloading TV programs, doing some online shopping, tweeting, "following," "friending" and otherwise multitasking on your smart phone.  But that is exactly what American business is working so hard to get our students to do. So what I, as an educator, want to say to the business leaders who want me to teach entrepreneurship is, "please get out of my way."  Stop pushing my students to believe that the instant gratification of every pleasure is far more important than time spent in study and personal effort.  If, as another part of the same Northeastern survey reports, fifty-four percent of the same business leaders believe that "the American higher-education system is falling behind developing and emerging countries in preparing students for the work force," then it is time for those leaders to clean up their own house and stop treating students as consumers. But I have no expectation at all that anything of the sort will happen.  After all, their own entrepreneurial success is grounded in wiping out the competition and treating human beings as markets: in short, in destroying the conditions that foster entrepreneurship.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.