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Who invented the Business School?

It is commonly but inaccurately cited that the world's first business school was Wharton


Tue Jun 1 2010

Business Schools are an entrenched part of the educational and commercial landscape. Each year tens of thousands of students join School's across the world attempting to gain the special skills needed in today's globalised economy.

Yet few people know the providence of the Business School phenomenom? Where did this influential industry come from and how did it get here?

It is commonly but inaccurately cited that the world's first business school was Wharton School of the University of Pennslyvania founded in 1881 by Joseph Wharton. The fashion for succinct business language had not yet been developed, and Joseph rather wordily outlined the goal of the Wharton School of Finance and Economy:

"To provide for young men special means of training and of correct instruction in the knowledge and in the arts of modern Finance and Economy, both public and private, in order that, being well informed and free from delusions upon these important subjects, they may either serve the community skillfully as well as faithfully in offices of trust, or, remaining in private life, may prudently manage their own affairs and aid in maintaining sound financial morality: in short, to establish means for imparting a liberal education in all matters concerning Finance and Economy." Essentially, they would learn Finance and Economics.

If brevity of language was not yet being practised in 1881, the Business School had already been invented. So who was the inventor, was it Harvard? Founded in 1908, HBS was the first Business School to offer a degree called an MBA (this programme became quite popular). Harvard Business School introduced another innovation when they found out there were no textbooks suitable for business programmes.

They overcame this by interviewing leading practitioners, and writing detailing accounts about what they were doing. The professors instructed their students to read these accounts and offer recommendations for the right course of action. This is how the Case Study Method was born, which is still one of the most popular teaching methods in Business Schools today.

But Harvard, the world's most prestigious Business School, did not actually invent the Business School. This was The École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris was founded in 1819 by a circle of economists and traders including the famous economist Jean-Baptise Say and the banker Vital Roux.

As such, it is the oldest establishment dedicated to business and finance teaching in the world.  Today,  École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris is still in existence and is one of the leading Business Schools in Europe now called ESCP Europe.

So the Business School was invented in France, by the French Jean-Baptiste Say, who was against popular perception of the French an advocate of competition, free trade and lifting restraints on business. Jean-Baptiste Say, also coined or at least popularised one of the most well known words in business, "entrepreneur".

Unfortunately, no one told George Bush, the former US president, who famously remarked that "the problem with the French is that they dont have a word for entrepreneur".