Can entrepreneurship be taught? Should it be? And what does it mean if it is?
Entrepreneurship has quickly become the new socioeconomic common sense, with the entrepreneur a celebrated figure and the start-up an unlikely object of fascination. Governments around the world now commit millions of dollars to programs and policies supporting entrepreneurship, and books celebrating it fill stores and the pages of the New York Times and Fortune alike. The reality TV franchise Dragons’ Den and its imitators have gained popularity around the world. Mattel recently launched a line of Barbie entrepreneur dolls, part of a program to inspire girls to follow their dreams by starting businesses. Signs and symptoms, desires and dreams: it seems that we’ve become certain that the values and beliefs of enterprise culture are the best way to grow our economies, solve our social problems, and expand our horizons as individuals.
Signs of the social importance of entrepreneurship can be seen on Canadian campuses, too. Our universities and colleges have established programs devoted to entrepreneurship. More significantly, they have launched institutes, incubators and accelerators to help students and faculty bring their ideas to the market and forged powerful links to innovation hubs. These engines of entrepreneurship include the University of Alberta’s Entrepreneurship HUB, the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence, and the University of Toronto’s Entrepreneurship Hatchery, as well as TEC Edmonton and Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. Student entrepreneurship clubs like Enactus (formerly Students in Free Enterprise), with branches at 59 institutions in Canada and 1,600 globally, flourish.
Entrepreneurship now plays a major role in university planning and animates teaching and research priorities. Universities across the country are making entrepreneurial learning a priority, launching courses like the University of British Columbia’s Entrepreneurship 101, intended to engage students from across the disciplines as they “harness the tools of business to profit from their passions.” Ryerson University has begun producing a television program, The Naked Entrepreneur, in partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network. Dalhousie University’s strategic plan aims to maximize opportunities for students and researchers, “to promote creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.”
A 2013 report by the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) puts it bluntly: “Entrepreneurship, upon which economists say economic growth depends, has moved from the margins to the mainstream of university education.” And most Ontario universities seem to agree: a majority of them listed entrepreneurship as core value in the recently completed Strategic Mandate Agreement exercise, a process that was supposed to help universities identify differences between them rather than common areas of focus.
What should we make of entrepreneurship’s recent and rapid move from the sidelines to the campus mainstream?
To begin with, as journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus recently pointed out in Wired, we should avoid accepting too quickly the “fantasy that entrepreneurship…can be systematized…that success in the startup game can be not only taught but…made predictable.” The faith in entrepreneurial education demonstrated by entrepreneurial programs and institutes ignores this problem: it suggests that we can teach entrepreneurship and easily provide students with the skills to win over Dragons’ Den’s grumpy venture capitalists.
Even if we put aside our doubts about the feasibility of this, the drive to make everyone an entrepreneur reinforces existing social changes that should trouble us all.
The COU’s statement that “universities are now preparing students to create their own jobs [and] jobs for other people” heralds the failure of our economic and political systems: if graduates want jobs, they’ll have to make them; if they need social supports, well, try harder.
The DIY version of society promoted through entrepreneurial education trains students to accept and even glorify a world of risk and uncertainty, characterized by a withered public sphere and a welfare state replaced by individual acts of social enterprise. The current buzzword within universities may be innovation, but it seems an oddly truncated version of the term, one that recoils from considering the possibility of substantial change to our economic, political and social systems. Instead, innovation is limited to profit-generating activities and techno-utopian fantasies about confident, market-savvy individuals who look out for themselves in the increasingly ruined (environmental, economic, political) worlds in which we live.
We worry that in the drive to produce entrepreneurial graduates, not only in business but across curriculums, we ill-equip them to deal with the pressing challenges of the times. There are collective challenges that require thinking outside of existing structures, a type of innovation that exceeds the entrepreneurship models promoted by Canadian universities today. Entrepreneurship and innovation, while important and necessary, remain insufficient educational goals if Canada wants to remain a global leader in the 21st century: disquietingly, they increasingly seem to be the only things that matter.
Daniel Harvey is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, where he teaches in the department of English and film studies. His dissertation examines the pre-eminence of entrepreneurship in economics, politics, and culture, as the 21st century’s common sense.
Imre Szeman holds the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta. With Mr. Harvey, he is co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of SAQ (South Atlantic Quarterly) on the politics of contemporary entrepreneurship.