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NPQ: Reckoning With Slavery: Revisiting Management’s Uncomfortable Past

16 Sep 2021
When history makes it into business classrooms, the focus is often on successes and the investors, managers, and entrepreneurs that students should emulate. But cautionary tales, such as those outlined from the history of slavery, can be at least as valuable.

Originally found at NPQ (Nonprofit Quarterly), by Caitlin Rosenthal.

This article is, with publisher permission, adapted from a more extensive journal article, “Reckoning with Slavery: How Revisiting Management’s Uncomfortable Past Can Help Us Create Better Futures,” published earlier this year by the Academy of Management Learning & Education.

In 1750—over a century before most modern business schools were founded—Malachy Postlethwayt described a school of strikingly modern design. Postlethwayt, a British pamphleteer, was planning to establish a “Merchant’s Public Counting House” where young men would be “bred to Trade” with “great advantage.” For a period of two years, students would study an array of topics ranging from arbitrage to rates of exchange, the stock market, foreign languages, and written and spoken business communication.

Merchants and bookkeeping instructors often taught short commercial courses, but Postlethwayt’s proposal stands out because it sounds strikingly like the modern MBA. Though it is unclear whether his vision materialized, Postlethwayt’s plans did describe the “gentlemen” who he expected to attend. Prominent on the list were “the sons of American planters”—the children of enslavers in North America and the Caribbean (Postlethwayt 1750).

Many enslavers were keenly interested in pursuing commercial education. Some kept extraordinarily complex business records, and several even published manuals and textbooks on plantation accounting and management. Plantations even participated in the equivalent of early-modern internships: while cotton and sugar planters sent their sons north to New England and across the Atlantic to Europe to be educated, other merchants and tradesmen sent their sons to the West Indies for practical experience working as bookkeepers and agents on large slave plantations. As we would say today, they sharpened their data science skills and expanded their networks.

Continue reading the original article at NPQ.

Read the original research in Academy of Management Journal.

Also read this AOM Insights summary citing this research.

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