Over the past few decades the vocabulary of corporatism has infiltrated our education system. Terms such as "core competencies" and "key performance indicators" litter the documentation of modern education.

Recently I sat in a staff meeting as we debated strategies to develop critical thinking in our students.

The skill of critical thinking is embedded in our glossy curriculum documents. The irony is that students who are true critical thinkers are unlikely to survive our schooling system, let alone a modern corporate environment.

True critical thinkers are probably sporting green mohawks and studs in their noses, navels and nads by the time they hit their mid-teens.


They ask silly questions, such as why should I wear this uniform? Why can't I have three studs in my ear and a ring in my nose? What's the point of learning this stuff? The likely answers are because those are the rules and it is in the syllabus. A true critical thinker would spend a lifetime on detention.

The likelihood is that critical thinkers are not the employees that most corporate employers would welcome or could cope with. When the boss says, "My door is always open", they are likely to remove it from its hinges. It is pointless having a door when it is always open. When the boss proclaims "there is no "I" in team" the critical thinker is liable to point out "but there is a 'U' in bull****".

We seldom acknowledge that our schooling system is a giant sorting and conditioning machine geared to producing compliant workers for the labour force. That is why time-keeping, bells, uniforms and acceptance of rules are such integral parts of schooling. In the early industrial revolution, factory owners struggled to train workers to obey the clock and meet the strict regimentation of factory life. Mass schooling had the implicit function of conditioning youngsters to the requirements of an industrialised workforce.

So if our schools were to suddenly succeed in creating a plethora of critical thinkers this could cause an outcry among employers. True critical thinkers would question the corporate blather that is part and parcel of contemporary workplaces. Corporate slogans such as "synergies", "blue-sky thinking". "windows of opportunity" and "chasing the cheese" would be dissected and exposed as inane claptrap.

Even the All Blacks have developed their own version of corporate speak. Post-match interviews are exercises in cliches and blandness. Our top athletes have been conditioned to speak nondescript inoffensive blather. What on earth is "physicality" in the context of a rugby test?

A friend who is a contrary critical thinker used to work for a large financial institution. During the heydays of the credit boom the byline on his email read, "We are a conduit for your financial dreams." This earned him plaudits from his corporate masters who struggled with irony. He ran into trouble when he started flying his toy helicopter round the office almost decapitating several co workers. He now works elsewhere. He didn't fit their "corporate profile".

These days, real characters in our corporatist workplaces are few and far between. Corporate capitalism often discourages critical thinking, robust debate and individualism in favour of compliancy and conformity. Brown nosers often get ahead.

Sadly there is a cost to businesses and the economy when innovative thinking and individualism is suppressed, though obviously a balance is required.


It takes a strong, open leader to encourage honest questioning and robust debate.

Yet the capitalist system described by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, favoured individualism, critical thinking, risk taking and enterprise.

Smith was describing a thriving dynamic system based on the productive efforts of individuals seeking to better their material situation. He talked of butchers, brewers and bakers - not Nikes, Microsofts and Exxons.

The corporate version of capitalism that has emerged since Smith's time would have shocked him. It is a bastardised version of his vision. Management has become separated from ownership.

Productive risk taking has become divorced from rewards.

Highly paid bonus-grabbing corporate executives were not the entrepreneurial heroes that Smith was describing.

Critical thinkers are essential to social and economic progress. They challenge the status quo by constantly asking "why?" and "what if?". But they are also a threat to those unwilling to be challenged in their beliefs. The fate of Socrates, who committed suicide, is a lesson for all.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom.