Posts from "April, 2011"

Business or Spanish: Which is Harder? Which is More “Useful”?

From today’s NYT:

“[My daughter] Caitlin is graduating from a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania next month, and I emailed her today to ask which was harder during the past four years — her business classes or her Spanish courses. Her reply was ‘Spanish hands down.'”

But is Spanish (or another liberal arts major) a useful choice? The author continues:

“When PayScale conducted its latest annual survey of starting and mid-career salaries for college grads in dozens of college majors, business came in as the 60th best-paying college degree. It fared worse than such supposedly impractical degrees as history, political science and philosophy.”

More here:

Humanities Students Outpace Business Majors in Academic Achievement

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: 

Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than students in every other major.”

“Business programs also attract more than their share of students who approach college in purely instrumental terms, as a plausible path to a job, not out of curiosity about, say, Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm.”

“At the beginning of freshman year and end of sophomore year, students in the study took the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a national essay test that assesses students’ writing and reasoning skills. During those first two years of college, business students’ scores improved less than any other group’s. Communication, education and social-work majors had slightly better gains; humanities, social science, and science and engineering students saw much stronger improvement.”

Could this explain why companies have recently turned to humanities and liberal arts majors during hiring season? Is this why business schools around the country have begun to retool their programs by infusing more humanities learning?

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? 

Golsby-Smith: “Business leaders around the world have told me that they despair of finding people who can help them solve wicked problems — or even get their heads around them. It’s not that firms don’t have smart people working with them. There are plenty of MBAs and even Ph.Ds in economics, chemistry, or computer science, in the corporate ranks. Intellectual wattage is not lacking. It’s the right intellectual wattage that’s hard to find. They simply don’t have enough people with the right backgrounds.

He continues: “This is because our educational systems focus on teaching science and business students to control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data. It doesn’t teach how to navigate “what if” questions or unknown futures. As Amos Shapira, the CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it: ‘The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks…The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy.'”

According to Golsby-Smith, people trained in the humanities can more easily imagine innovative solutions to problems because they “have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.” Unlike the study of purely vocational and technical fields, the study of great art and literature opens minds to big questions; it develops a “big picture” mentality; and it, above all, inspires curiosity. And it is precisely these mental skills and characteristics that are required for leadership in our rapidly changing and unpredictable world. 

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.