Dr. Michael Barnwell

Dr. Michael Barnwell's Niagara University course "Philosophy for the Business World" may be the only one of its kind in the U.S., and perhaps the world.

While most universities offer business ethics classes, this class is completely different. Since his days as a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, Dr. Barnwell has been resolute in his desire to teach philosophy to undergraduate business students.         

"It was a passion of mine to show how philosophy is useful for the real world, especially the business world. Business leaders keep saying that critical thinking is one of the top skills they seek," said Dr. Barnwell.

"Despite the fact that philosophy is the lone discipline devoted primarily to fostering the ability to think critically, there have been few interactions between business and philosophy in business schools," he continued. "Meanwhile, philosophers keep talking about how important their classes are for the real world, but they have not done anything to demonstrate this fact."

Barnwell's course is an attempt to bridge the gap.

In creating the class, one of his main goals was to offer students the opportunity to use their philosophical critical thinking skills to help businesses succeed. He seeks to turn students into "philosophy business consultants," making them more desirable in the job market and better able to offer a unique skill set that others lack.

Dr. Johan Roos, the chief academic officer at the HULT International Business School, wrote the following in the Harvard Business Review:

"They [business students] lack meaningful, relevant business education that teaches them cross-disciplinary thinking, broad familiarity with humanistic and scientific trends, and, most importantly, Aristotle's ‘phronesis’ - the practical wisdom that teaches them to make decisions based on deep notions of what is good for the global community of which businesses are part."

This is what Dr. Barnwell's course speaks to.

According to Dr. Barnwell, the most innovative part of this course had students actually work at 13 local businesses in Buffalo, N.Y., to practice "philosophical business consulting." Students prepared by learning to spot and remedy problems with conceptual clarity and to learn the intricacies of socratic questioning.

Then, they were sent, in 13 groups of two to three students each, to businesses, including a health insurance provider, financial firms, a charter school, a television newsroom, a business enterprise foundation, a toxic remediation company, a major manufacturer, and a biotech firm. They were given access to CEOs or COOs and sat in on meetings.

In a separate project, students collaborated to present on how important logical concepts and fallacies, typically reserved for the philosophy classroom, play a role in business.

Finally, the class focused on two books and the principles therein, written by Tom Morris, who is widely considered the pioneer of applying philosophy in the business world. He is the author of “If Aristotle Ran General Motors.” In fact, Dr. Barnwell was even able to arrange for Tom Morris to visit his class and speak with the students personally. 

Said Morris: “Michael Barnwell is a master of innovation. His wildly creative philosophy and business class provides exactly what modern students and contemporary business both need--an application of ancient wisdom to the challenges of the marketplace. He grounds his students in the best philosophical ideals and techniques of clear thinking and sends them out as apostles of insight to consult with business executives. I think he’s onto something big here, and that his example will be copied by forward-thinking philosophy professors across the nation, to the great good of both the academy and the market. I’ve visited the class and interacted with the students, and I came away very impressed.”

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