Tag Archives: humanities

Are The Humanities a Soon-To-Be-Dead Discipline? Not According To Steve Jobs

From the New York TimesCareer Counselor: Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?

At an event unveiling new Apple products, Mr. Jobs said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.”

Bill Gates does not agree.

Put me down in the Steve Jobs column.

You can read the “debate,” with eight voices weighing in, here.


You might enjoy this earlier post of mine:  The Parable of the Calligraphy Class – Profound Insight from the Life Story of Steve Jobs.





The 10 Month Immersion In “Humanistic Studies” That Really Mattered – A Story From Yesteryear

Here’s a really interesting article.  This is one of those “I didn’t know about this, but I should have!” stories.

The article is entitled The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone by Wes Davis, in the New York Times.  (in the top 10 e-mailed articles).  It is a story from the 1950’s.

The problem:
A number of Bell’s top executives, led by W. D. Gillen, then president of Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania, had begun to worry about the education of the managers rising through the company’s hierarchy. Many of these junior executives had technical backgrounds, gained at engineering schools or on the job, and quite a few had no college education at all. They were good at their jobs, but they would eventually rise to positions in which Gillen felt they would need broader views than their backgrounds had so far given them.

The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell explained the Bell leaders’ concerns in an article published in Harper’s magazine in 1955: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.

The solution:
Together with representatives of the university, Bell set up a program called the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives. More than simply training its young executives to do a particular job, the institute would give them, in a 10-month immersion program on the Penn campus, what amounted to a complete liberal arts education. There were lectures and seminars led by scholars from Penn and other colleges in the area — 550 hours of course work in total, and more reading, Baltzell reported, than the average graduate student was asked to do in a similar time frame.

There’s a lot being written about the failures of education.  And the question of “what kind of education is needed for the modern era?” is front and center for a lot of folks in business and in education.

But I think we are truly in crisis times, and the ethical center is not holding very well.  Here is how Mr. Davis ends his article:

As the worst economic crisis since the Depression continues and the deepening rift in the nation’s political fabric threatens to forestall economic reform, the values the program instilled would certainly come in handy today. We need fewer drifting straws on the stream of American business, and more discontented thinkers who listen thoughtfully to both sides of our national debates. Reading “Ulysses” this Bloomsday may be more than just a literary observance. Think of it as an act of fiscal responsibility.

The Disappearing University Education and the Rise of the Trade School Education — a serious, festering problem (w/reading suggestions)

It’s tough for college graduates out there, thus it is tough for current college students.  What should today’s student major in?  In today’s NY Times, one of the top e-mailed articles wrestles with this question: CAREER U. — Making College ‘Relevant’ by Kate Zerniuke.

After discussing the decline of/loss of philosophy majors, and the ascendancy of business majors, here is a key excerpt:

There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”
“It’s not about what you should major in, but that no matter what you major in, you need good writing skills and good speaking skills,” says Debra Humphreys, a vice president at the association.

Here’s my opinion.  I understand that people need jobs, and that the jobs are tougher to get with a humanities/philosophy/English degree.  But I have heard my share of mediocre presentations, read my share of mediocre business writings, and seen my share of ethical lapses.  The humanities matter.  And I think that business will rediscover a need for such thinking/training.  And for those who did not take enough of such subjects, they have some remedial work to do.  And, yes, I know that it is tough to do this with a “catch-up” approach.  (I wrote about this earlier, based on an article from Harper’s: Dehumanized — A Cause for Alarm in Education, and in the World of Business Books).

You can’t read a book or two to make up for lost years of foundational learning.  But, let’s use the paragraph above as providing to set an agenda for some reading in 2010.  Here are some suggestions:

If you need to work on: Then you might want to read:
“the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” Words that Work by Frank Luntz; and Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
“critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” Big Think Strategy: How to Leverage Bold Ideas and Leave Small Thinking Behind by Bernd H. Schmitt; and The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking by Roger L. Martin.
“the ability to innovate and be creative.” The Creative Habit:  Learn It and Use It for Life

by Twyla Tharp and The Art of Innovation (Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm) by Tom Kelley

This is a subject worth following.

Dehumanized — A Cause for Alarm in Education, and in the World of Business Books

My true academic love is rhetoric (part of what we call the humanities).  I love it because it is honest – it calls itself an art.  And art is imprecise, long-brewing.   You can use a calculator to get to the right numbers, but you need a crock pot to simmer all the stuff that goes into your mind to ponder the big questions of life.  From Aristotle on, rhetoric has been defined as an art – “Rhetoric is the art of persuasion; rhetoric is the art of finding the available means of persuasion.”  If persuasion was a science, then Coke or Pepsi could make the definitive commercial, persuade us to abandon those lesser brands forever, and we would then be loyal customers for life.

But, no, rhetoric (persuasion) is not a science – it is an art, unpredictable, very, very tough to nail down.  Science is definite – art is indefinite.  And without art, life is less meaningful, and much less noble.  Science can make a nuclear bomb or provide nuclear energy.  Somebody, from the inside of his or her unique human soul, needs to help decide which is the appropriate use of such power.  This part of “education” is called the humanities – it is what keeps us human.

Business books fall in the midst of this discussion.  Shall we approach business as though business were a science, or part of the humanities?  A whole bunch of business authors simply want to tell us what works.  And increasingly, the voices telling us how to do the job of education come from the world of business.

“What do our kids need to know today?  As far as some are concerned, whatever will get them hired by Bill Gates.” These are the words of Mark Slouka in a terrific, thought-provoking, confrontational article in the September issue of Harper’s: Dehumanized:  When math and science rule the school.  (Note:  subscription required for access to full article).

The evidence is overwhelming, and the advocates are many.  They tell us that our schools need to do a better job teaching math and science, in order to compete with schools rising in quality, from all across the world.  But are we about to throw away what made America great, the “soul” of America?  The point of the Harper’s article is that it is a dangerous move to move away from the humanities into mathandscience.

In my book synopsis presentations, I usually read quite a few quotes from the book.  Here, I print quite a few quotes from the article in Harper’s.  These provide just a taste, but help us understand the warning:

• It’s a play I’ve been following for some time now. It’s about the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. • It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production.
• In a visible world, the invisible does not compute; in a corporate culture, hypnotized by quarterly results and profit margins, the gradual sifting of political sentiment is of no value; in a horizontal world of “information” readily convertible to product, the verticality of wisdom has no place. Show me the spreadsheet on skepticism.
• What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important. That much seems undebatable.
• By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.
• Writing is “a critical strategy that we can offer students to prepare them to succeed in the workplace.” Writing skills are vital because they promote “clear, concise communications, which all business people want to read.” “The return on a modest investment in writing is manifold,” because “it strengthens competitiveness, increases efficiency and empowers employees.”
• (a “first-rate education,” we understand by this point, is one that grows the economy),
• The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.
• It’s been said before: in the margins of the page, over the course of time, for the simple reason that we shape every book we read and are slightly shaped by it in turn, we become who we are. Which is to say individuals just distinct enough from one another in our orientation toward “the truth” or “the good” to be difficult to control.
• To put it simply, science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one.
• Mathandscience becomes the all-purpose shorthand for intelligence; it has that all-American aura of money about it.
• The market for reason is slipping fast…

As I read this article, I thought of a book I presented a couple of years ago.  It has cropped back up on the business best-seller list.  That is good.  Here’s the book:

Why HOW we Do Anything Means Everything…
In Business (and in Life) by Dov Seidman.

Seidman wrote:  This is a HOW book, not a how-to book.  What’s the difference between how-to and HOW?  Everything.

I think it is a mistake for the business community to help lower the importance of the humanities.  And not just because the humanities would make us better at business communication.  I think the humanities will help make us better people.

Does anybody else wish that Bernie Madoff, or the creators of mortgage swaps, had spent more time really paying attention in the humanities?


• You can order the synopsis of my presentation of How:  Why HOW we Do Anything Means Everything…In Business (and in Life), at our companion web site, 15 Minute Business Books.