A co-sponsored NYT / Chronicle of Higher Ed article describes business majors as being among the least engaged and least curious students on campus. Humanities majors, on the contrary, came out near the top in terms of intellectual curiosity and academic gain:
Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities
This is the title of an article published last week by Tony Golsby-Smith in the Harvard Business Review blog. Golsby-Smith, the founder and CEO of Second Road, a successful business design and transformation firm in Australia, observes that humanities majors are excellent problem solvers and leaders. Companies, in general, are not lacking in people with great technical training in business, computer science, accounting and so forth, but such training is often deficient for envisioning which directions to go to get ahead of the competition. Employees steeped in the humanities or liberal arts, on the other hand, excel in innovation and creative thinking. How can this be?
Which Languages Should the Liberal Arts Be About in 2011?
In an article in the New Republic (December 13, 2010), John McWhorter argues for dramatic changes to university language study while brushing aside concerns over the recent closures of the French, German and Italian departments around the country. The shuttering of these units is merely a sign of the times, affirms McWhorter, as the new global economy displaces Europe‘s–and especially France’s–former cultural centrality. In tough budgetary times, strategic choices must be made. And the obvious choice, according to McWhorter, is Chinese or Arabic.
Does anybody disagree that Chinese and Arabic are crucially important languages? The question is: why does McWhorter pit them in a zero-sum game with German or French? There may be good arguments to do so, but McWhorter does not make them. His reasoning goes like this: Chinese is “happening” while French is merely a residual marker of class distinction; Chinese is useful for business whereas French is good for the “educated person [who] is supposed to be able to at least fake a conversation in French,” Nietzsche and Stendhal are, indeed, interesting, but why learn German or French when such texts are already available in English translation?
For McWhorter, the idea that an “educated” person learns French or German is a relic of the past. Things could have been different, and, in fact, would be different, if we could choose all over again: “I […] have a deep-seated sense that the driver’s seat in a car should be on the left side. It’s all I’ve known, but hardly the choice all humans would make if designing a car from scratch with no cultural preconceptions.”
It’s hard to tell if this is an argument or a provocation. Is comparing choice of language study to car design a useful analogy? First of all, we’re not talking about all humans deciding on one language; nor are we talking about a parallel world where language choice is divorced from historical and cultural experience. We’re talking about American language learners who have long considered themselves historically and culturally tied to Europe and who want to strengthen these ties via language study. The original choice to study French and German (and Italian and Latin, etc.) was thus not an arbitrary and purely technical decision. It was one animated by a desire to participate in the cultural transmission Europe’s humanistic traditions that define us. Is it possible to imagine the serious study of language outside of a “cultural preconception”? Isn’t the very idea of language transmission tied to cultural transmission?
The answer is, of course, ‘yes’–which explains why McWhorter doesn’t really argue his point against European languages; he relies on the observations of a fictional “Martian” to make it for him: “A Martian would be baffled as to why anyone would think of French, German or Italian as more important for young Americans to learn than Chinese.” Or he relies on the fiction of pure chance: “If the dice were rolled again, [Europe] might not even be considered a continent.”
The idea here is clear: Europe is no longer important, and our attachment to European languages has outlasted its utility. Linguistic “importance” should now be based on strategic importance and economic benefit.
However, even if we concede this last point, McWhorter’s Martian would be mistaken: the European Union is by far the US’s largest trading partner, and both Germany and France figure in the top 10. Canada, our closest neighbor and second largest trading partner, is also partially francophone. And in terms of strategic importance, Europe, Canada and US are all members of NATO, struggling to share a historical destiny. It’s unclear, given these facts, why we should so quickly turn our backs on European language and culture. Can’t we admit that there’s more at stake here than being able to “fake a conversation”?
The real argument for defending the study of European languages in American universities, however, is neither utilitarian nor strategic. It is the argument that McWhorter wants to deny: that European languages link us to the liberal arts or humanistic heritage out of which American political and cultural traditions emerged. In order to maintain these fragile traditions in an increasingly hostile economic climate, it is imperative that we avoid caving into purely market or strategic justifications for curricular decisions. Most college students already view their college experience as purely instrumental; it is our job to help as many students as we can see beyond this limited point of view.
Engineer’s Career is Enhanced by Humanities Skills
Mark Bauerlein reprinted in the Chronicle of Higher Ed this response to his recent contribution to the Jobs vs. Gates debate in the NYT :
“Having retired after 36 years as an engineer/physicist, I can look
back and honestly say that the liberal-arts courses I took amplified
my effectiveness as an engineer. They could be described as what the
military would call ‘force multipliers,’ always present in my best
work and often most responsible for my promotions along the way.
“My promotions were more related to my ability to write and give good
presentations than to the technical ingenuity of my work. Often,
some very ingenious output resulted in a company patent but just
didn’t create any excitement, while on other occasions I managed to
sell some rather pedestrian work to roars of approval.
“Some studies of philosophy helped me to understand what it means to
know something and to see logical holes in an argument. My exposure
to psychology and sociology made me more sensitive to ingrained
paradigms that I could not change and so needed to navigate, like so
many hidden reefs.
“I think my finest university teacher was a historian named Milton
Halliday. He was awakening a classroom of physical science and
engineering majors to the history of western philosophy. That
course, and the inspiration of Halliday, motivated in me a lifetime
of study outside of my career.”
These are just the kind of testimonials that the humanities need in discussions of funding, general education requirements, curricular changes, and career readiness. From what I’ve seen and heard, humanities professors haven’t made the case. Their defenses of the humanities can’t overcome the simple dollar calculations.
The dean’s option is irresistible: Why spend $80,000 on one associate professor of English at a 2-2 load when I can pay two adjuncts $48,000 to teach 16 (!) courses?
English professors struggle to answer that question in an effective, persuasive way. If we had more engineers and scientists putting administrators on the spot, the adjunct trend would, at the least, slow down. Right now, the silence of people whose research brings in big federal dollars isn’t benign or neutral. It’s an endorsement of the steady marginalization of the humanities on campus.
I believe most scientists and engineers believe in the essential role of the humanities in higher education, but they don’t know how much they have declined in prestige and persuasion. It would be all to the good if more cross-the-quad communication took place.
WSJ: MBAs Lack Effective Communication Skills
Evidence is growing, says the Wall Street Journal, that MBA students lack effective communication skills. The article cites a number of businesses that are unhappy with the paltry writing abilities of recent graduates. What it does not say is that learning how to write often comes from reading great literature: it’s impossible to know what good writing looks like if your reading is limited to college textbooks and commercial schlock. This article confirms what many said in the NYT debate: that the humanities are more crucial than ever to succeeding in the modern marketplace. Read here: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052748703409904576174651780110970-lMyQjAxMTAxMDIwMjEyNDIyWj.html
Gates, Jobs and the Liberal Arts
The New York Times invited experts to debate the differences between Bill Gates’s and Steve Jobs’s approach to education. Gates prefers investing in fields that lead to employment, Jobs wants to focus on creativity and innovation, which depend on a deep familiarity with the liberal arts. Nearly all of the participants, even those on the side of science and technology, argue that liberal arts skills (writing, critical thinking, communication, socio-historical awareness) are crucial, especially for long-term career success. Check out the debate here: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/03/20/career-counselor-bill-gates-or-steve-jobs/rival-philosophies-both-compelling
Has the Bubble Burst on Law School?
A lot of humanities students–especially students of philosophy and English–end up going to law school. This is a great choice for many students; for others it is a default decision based on the vague idea that they will make a lot of money and that life will take care of itself. When a family member or neighbor asks you: “Why are you studying the humanities?” it is very easy to respond “I’m going to law school” in order to avoid the quizzical stares and the ambiguity of pursuing some other–and perhaps even more interesting–career path. If law school is on your radar screen, and for the wrong reasons, it may be useful to consider other options, especially now that the law school bubble may have burst. Read more here: http://www.slate.com/id/2288751/. For ideas on how to bridge the gap between a humanities degree and other exciting career choices, check this post on Sheila Curran’s book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: http://humanitiesplus.byu.edu/2010/12/looking-for-a-job-with-a-ba-in-the-humanities.html.
Reader’s Response to William D. Cohan NYT Piece on the Questionable Value of College Degrees
March 17th, 2011
Twenty-five years ago, the huge financial institution where I worked in NYC wanted to find out if the premium it paid to hire MBAs was worth it. Did they really perform better? Was it worth the cost? Our PhD research team decided to find out. They carefully identified and studied the top performers who were five years into their careers across our far-flung operations. The results? MBAs did NO better than students with only a bachelor’s degree. Grade point average made NO difference. Education institution made NO difference (the kids from CCNY did just as well as the ones from Harvard). Prior work experience made NO difference. In our study the ONLY predictor of success was an undergraduate liberal arts degree. I think of that whenever I hear about a middle-class kid who wants to go into huge debt to finance an Ivy League education. Yes, the contacts are fabulous. But if you have a fire in your belly, it make no difference where you go to school. Amen.
State Dept is Hiring Office Managers for Overseas Posts
Scientists Are Rediscovering What Humanists Have Always Known
David Brooks makes the argument that the Enlightenment view of human nature has taken scientists and government policymakers down a number of blind alleys by focusing on human rationality and ignoring or downgrading the role of moral sentiments in animating human behavior. He is describing, in fact, what humanists and professors of great literature have always known: that by bracketing out the “unmeasurable” elements of human thought and behavior science misses, or even willfully ignores, the most interesting and fundamental dimensions of humanity. This moral “blindness” of rationalism is, in fact, the stuff of tragedy.