Social Entrepreneurship in the Liberal Arts

Article published in the Middlebury Campus (January 20, 2011)

This winter-term, twenty-one students and I have learned a lot about social entrepreneurship. First, the idea is not new. For three decades, leading champions of social change have promoted social entrepreneurship. Bill Drayton founded the Ashoka Foundation (1981) to support innovators worldwide; Jeff Skoll – Ebay’s first president – created his foundation (1999) to promote “a sustainable world of peace and prosperity.”  Yet while social entrepreneurship is in some ways ‘old news,’ it seems to be everywhere these days. The White House already has an Office of Social Innovation; rumor has it that President Obama will commit more resources to promoting social entrepreneurship in his State of the Union address next week.  Stay tuned!

The concept’s ubiquity right now is both good and bad. Good because it’s a sign that leaders who are taking on the toughest 21st-century challenges – poverty, climate change, and the lack of human rights – have found an approach that works. Bad because like many popular terms, it can mean too many things to too many people. (A critique that was also true of social capital when President Clinton embraced that concept in the 1990s.) In academic communities, we demand clarity and rigor. Is there a clear, rigorous way to define social entrepreneurship?

In our class, we’ve adopted Roger Martin and Sally Osberg’s definition from their 2007 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Social entrepreneurship occurs when individuals identify an unjust equilibrium – say a poverty trap – and lead a creative process whose goal is the establishment of a more just equilibrium. The definition echoes Joseph Schumpeter, the great economic historian: social entrepreneurs lead ‘creative gales of destruction’ designed to build a better world.

Yet admittedly, definitions of social entrepreneurship abound. Furthermore, too many are mushy. For some academics, this – and the term’s ubiquity – may cause alarm. It turns out, though, that social entrepreneurship has good company. Plenty of grand modern ideas – culture, governance, and markets come to mind – have scores of sloppy definitions. Needless to say, this hasn’t stopped academics from placing such ideas in the front-and-center of student inquiry.

But for those who suspect that social entrepreneurship is no more than a fad, another alarm may go off: is this really an idea that matters? In the last few years, leaders at top universities have concluded that it is. Oxford, Duke, Stanford and NYU (just to name a few) have recently established centers and programs for social entrepreneurship, which are helping scholars, students and staff to integrate social entrepreneurship into core curricular and co-curricular activities. The outcomes of such programs often inspire. For example, after engaging in Harvard’s Social Enterprise Initiative while earning her MBA, Abigail Falik started Global Citizen Year, a nonprofit which is building a movement of diverse high school graduates who spend a pre-college “bridge year” in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But research-oriented universities with prominent business schools are one thing. Academics in at liberal arts institutions may still argue that social entrepreneurship is an idea that doesn’t belong. It’s an argument that’s not hard to make. The liberal arts are designed to stand slightly apart, to allow students to dig deep into ideas as ideas, with no regard for their practicality. Furthermore, a professor’s argument might continue, the great goals of the liberal arts – to help students learn how to reflect, to write, and to analyze as they prepare to lead a life of meaning – may well produce social entrepreneurs in the long run; it’s up to our colleagues in MA and MBA programs to teach our alums the necessary practical skills to get there. In a nutshell, let’s keep social entrepreneurship out of the liberal arts.

I’d agree with this case – if the teaching of social entrepreneurship were viewed as nothing more that providing students with practical tools. This month, I’ve concluded that the most persuasive case for teaching social entrepreneurship in the liberal arts is quite different.

It begins with an observation about being a liberal-arts teacher in the 21st century. What we do when we are at our best is to give students the time and space to reflect on their own agency in a complex world. Every student on a liberal-arts campus, echoing Yale’s Anthony Kronman, should confront, wrestle with, and ultimately celebrate that most fundamental question: “What is living for?” For example, when my own economics and environmental studies classes really succeed, it’s because the course material and the learning process have allowed students to stumble, to sometimes really falter, but in the end to confidently stand up and say: “In this class, I’ve learned a little more about the world and my role in it.” I’m guessing that that my colleagues in Physics, Philosophy, Portuguese – you name the department – feel the same way.

But the truth is, we don’t always do this as well as we should. Here’s where social entrepreneurship can come in. To carefully teach students about leading creative, even destructive processes whose goal is a better world, we must begin with the students themselves. To paraphrase the great organizer Marshall Ganz, we must help students to ask: “What is my story of self?  What is the story of us?  What is our story of now?”  Put another way, we must ask students to first reflect – and only after to connect.

What I like most about this perspective is that it takes us back to Kronman’s question: “What is living for?” And to begin to answer that question well (has anyone really figured it out?), a student needs to explore the breadth of the humanities – in many ways the core of the liberal arts.  If it were up to me, the teaching of social entrepreneurship would start with the great lessons from philosophy, religion and theories of political science.

Social entrepreneurs are already all around us at Middlebury. Think of the Davis Peace Scholars, graduates of MiddCORE, and the many young leaders aided by the Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts. Like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain, who was delighted to discover that he’d been speaking prose for years, we’ve been in the business of social entrepreneurship for some time now!  If we decide to commit to do more, we must begin with the core ideals of the liberal arts. The final words of the college’s mission statement are: “Students who come to Middlebury learn to engage the world.” The key to achieving this mission is to help students to engage themselves in a reflective, guided process of inquiry. Only then can they go on to be world changers.

3 thoughts on “Social Entrepreneurship in the Liberal Arts

  1. Catharine Wright


    Not yet having attended any of the events for the new center, I am happy to have discovered this essay! I appreciate your clear definition of Social Entrepreneurship and your careful and fair attention to diverse points of view in considering its role in the liberal arts. As a writing teacher, I am particularly interested in your attention to Ganz’s questions: “What is my story of self? What is the story of us? What is our story of now?” This progression of questions takes us not only from consideration of the self to consideration of the collective, such an important movement, but also brings our attention to the formation of collectives. What kind of “us” is possible in various contexts? How do we deal with history as we attempt to understand “us”? What can we do along the way to make our exploration of these questions an inclusive process? How do our language habits, tones and postures contribute to our tendencies to define how “us” is perceived by others? These are all questions that help bring the wonderful riches of the humanities into the present in ways that respond to diverse groups.

    I agree that philosophy, religion and political science are critical. And would add that history, women and gender studies, and critical race studies are also crucial to the process of exploring both the story of self and the story of us. In this way we connect what has been and can be in the story of the now.

    It is heartening to know that the liberal arts is building strong centers for action as well as reflection. On the writing end, we try to nurture inquiry, reflection, and imagination. Imagining a way of being in the world. Reflecting on ones intersections with that world. And then of course civic engagement brings in the “doing.”

    Thanks for your great work and thoughtful writing.

    Catharine Wright

  2. Pamela Berenbaum

    Thank you for your essay. I am very excited about the new center, because it will create leaders in a field I am passionate about: public health. Economic opportunity, environmental sustainability, and empowerment are goals that public health shares with social entrepreneurship. Public health needs social entrepreneurship; we need to abandon our historic over-reliance on paternalistic and tenuous goverment solutions. I’d also like to second your motion that liberal arts institutions are, in fact, a perfect home for disciplines that some dismiss as too applied or practical. The people who can solve complex problems are those who can delve deeply into many disciplines, uncover connections, and illuminate opportunities that draw upon many fields — I would argue that this *is* the mission of the liberal arts. Thank you for your work in bringing the center to Middlebury. I’d love to become involved!
    — Pam Berenbaum, visiting faculty member

    1. Jonathan Isham Post author

      Thanks for your good words Pam. I hope we can get a chance to meet before winter term ends: could you come to the center next week? Jon

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