Politics & Prose December 2005

The Education of Peter Drucker

Jack Beatty, the biographer of renowned management expert Peter Drucker (who died last month at 95), pays tribute to him as one of the twentieth century's greatest influences for the good

Hailed as "the father of management theory," Peter F. Drucker was also (as he once labeled himself) a "social ecologist"—a student of the success and failure, the rise and fall of societies. In one of his last public interviews, on the National Public Radio program On Point, he saw a "very difficult transition" coming for Americans as they adjust to a world in which their country is no longer "the big boss"—a world of stronger economies, more creative societies, and plural value systems. Certainly, he said, the new century is beginning badly for the United States. Even though President George W. Bush had awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2002, Drucker told On Point in December 2004 of his despair over the "tragedy of Iraq—a total disaster." Being the big boss for so long had given Americans a false sense of their power—and of their country's rightness. The humbling of U.S. power in Iraq and the rejection of U.S. pretensions to virtue around the world, he feared, was a harbinger of humblings to come.

From the archives:

"'Invent Radium or I'll Pull Your Hair'" (August 1998)
The story of how young Doris Schmitz fought for independence from her Prussian mother, got an education, and fell in love with an eloquent young Austrian named Peter Drucker. By Doris Drucker

"Beyond the Information Revolution" (October 1999)
The author gauges the significance of e-commerce and throws light on the future of "the knowledge worker," his own coinage. By Peter F. Drucker

"The Age of Social Transformation" (November 1994)
A survey of the epoch that began early in this century, and an analysis of its latest manifestations. By Peter F. Drucker

Peter Drucker was born into a country that precipitately came down in the world. In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled more than 50 million Europeans from the Alps to the borders of Russia. But by 1918 Austria had been reduced to an alpine republic of 6.5 million, and Drucker's native Vienna had been rendered a mere capital of nostalgia. The Great War had splintered the "Dual Monarchy" of the Emperor Franz Josef into the national and religious shards that are still contending in the Balkans today. "How does it feel to be ending your days under the rule of another Austrian?" (California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) Drucker was recently asked. "I'm not impressed with Austrians," he sardonically replied. "I've known too many of them."

Like Conrad's "Mr. Kurtz," all Europe went into the making of Peter Drucker. His father, Adolph, was a lawyer/ economist with a high government job; his mother, Caroline, had studied medicine. They shared their professional interests with Peter and his younger brother Gerhart, and gave them an unrivaled education by including them in their Vienna "evenings." "My father had a dinner party every Monday" Peter recalled. "There were often economists, ranking civil servants, even a major international lawyer." Later in the week Caroline would hold a medical dinner. At one, Peter heard leading physicians debate the theories of Vienna's most famous psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud. There were also musical evenings: Peter's grandmother was a soloist with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. And there were literary evenings, even mathematical and statistical evenings. Peter's formal schooling could not add much to this intellectual saturation. Still, he "worshipped" Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy, the sister-teachers at the private school where his parents sent him after the public school failed to teach him to write legibly. It was a progressive school: Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy taught the boys to cook and sew and the girls to hammer and saw. Miss Elsa offered terse encouragement ("Better than last week"), while Miss Sophy's approval came in the form of a warm smile—"pure bliss to the beholder." "When fifty years later, the Women's Libbers announced that the Lord is really a woman," Peter recalled, "I was not a bit surprised."

Postwar Vienna was fixated on "prewar," when everything had been better. "All they talked about was life before 1914," he said. " I was surrounded by extinct volcanoes." Future-facing Peter could not stand it. After finishing high school, instead of going on to Vienna's medical school, as his father desired, Peter left to take a clerk's job in Hamburg. He was seventeen. "I had sat in school long enough."

Days, he worked. Evenings, he took classes in the law faculty of Hamburg University. German universities were notoriously slack, and decades later Peter wanted it understood that he was a part-time student: "Full-time students did not spend four years working hard and studying law. They spent four years in an agreeable haze compounded of two parts beer and one part sex."

He found time to publish a paper in the September 1929 issue of a prestigious economic journal. It predicted—just one month before the Great Crash—that the bull market of the 1920s would stay bullish. That cured Peter of soothsaying. Post-crash, the newspaper The Frankfurter General-Anzeiger hired him as a financial writer and soon named him senior editor. He was twenty. The war had killed off the generation of German and Austrian thirty-five-year-olds who should have filled such jobs.

Since his day at the paper began at 6 A.M. and ended at 2, Peter set about completing his law degree at the University of Frankfurt in the rigorous German manner. He never attended a class—it was enough to take an examination at the end of the year—except for the one he taught in international law for an indisposed professor. There he met a young woman from Mainz, Doris Schmitz—his future wife of seventy-one years.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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