A Practical Defense of the Humanities in the 21st Century

There has been a tremendous swing towards business and technology in higher education today, both in Korea and around the world. We see business schools and business majors emerging everywhere, even at institutions that seemed quite distant from business previously. Moreover, we also see that many jobs advertised take the MBA as a requirement.

That shift in education is born of a profound insecurity that many of us feel. There is a need to find employment rapidly that will pay us enough to survive in an age of such terrible and brutal competition. It seems as if it is only in business and in the apprehension of specialized skills in computer programming or nanotechnology can we hope to find security.

I fully understand that perspective, and the pressures to which all students are subject. In advocating what I would describe as strategic education, I am proposing that the current model for education, with its emphasis on business and technology is itself about to be swept away by the tremendous transformations taking place in our society today. That is not to say that business savvy, or knowledge of technology, will stop being important, but rather that the prerequisites for acquiring them will be radically transformed. We may witness a world in which a grounding in literature and philosophy will be much more relevant than an MBA.

In the future we will need a broader approach to education that takes into account such critical fields as literature, art, philosophy and history for several reasons. We need such education, and the  sensibility born of such education, not merely because of the deeper spiritual and personal satisfaction that such reading and thinking gives us. I am not simply claiming we need the humanities to be better rounded people. Rather, I am suggesting that only such a broad education can give us the self-confidence and the perceptiveness to respond effectively to the challenges of this age.

Our deep spiritual need for a liberal arts education to set us on an even keel is only half of the argument for a broad education. The liberal arts should appeal to the average student and his parent who are thinking in the most practical terms about survival in this uncertain age. I fully understand that position and want to stress that over the next 20 years the study of literature, history and art will be profoundly important to such students. In the future, education in the humanities must be continuous throughout life and an essential part of the most practical and career-oriented studies.

We live in an age of tremendous change. That statement has been made about every age, but in the current age, the challenges are particularly serious.  Globalization, the emergence of new regions of the world for growth, the rapid explosion of new technologies and the rapid aging of society are all factors that are unprecedented in their impact on society. Above all, these changes mean that the future we will encounter will be quite different from what we see today, and it would be a mistake to assume that if a degree from a business school is the best move today, it will still have the same value in ten years.

In a sense, the increasing importance of the liberal arts comes not from the potential that a degree in literature or history offers to help secure a particular job, but rather from the very real possibility that the world will change so quickly that you must be ready to adapt to new careers, and new realities, very rapidly. The determining factor in your career will be the alacrity and speed with which you can respond to change. In a world in which no particular one skill is certain to be of constant value, the liberal education allows the individual to think strategically, and if necessary, use his or her imagination to create a solution to intractable problems.

The liberal arts education allows the individual to see society and the world in its full complexity, to understand how value and authority are constructed out of the mixed strands of culture, ideology, economics and technology. Such a perspective allows the individual to formulate his or her specific strategy for survival within a constantly changing environment and to present an argument for his or her value and legitimacy before a constantly shifting audience. A broad education also gives the individual a historical perspective that provides a better chance of anticipating the social implications of social and economic change. The technical expert may be able to tell us what the next generation of smart phone will look like, but the student with a firm grasp of history, sociology and anthropology will be able to anticipate its implications for how society functions. The study of history provides the student with insights as to how systems collapse and are reborn that will be essential to survival. Moreover, the study of the liberal arts allows the individual to put forth his or her argument in a powerful manner. In this age that skill is of tremendous value.

The defining reality of our time is Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law means that the capacity of computers is increasing exponentially today and the transformation of our society is constantly. The increase is not linear, but exponential. The implications of such a change are profound. The rapid evolution of technology will completely transform our world and make many careers obsolete. It will do so with increasing rapidity, thus giving advantage to those with the imagination and the foresight to create new responses quickly.

For example, you might train for many years to become a simultaneous translator, memorizing thousands of words in a manner that restricts your ability to read more broadly in literature in history. By the time you reach the height of your career, however, most aspects of translation can be handled entirely by computers. That transformation may only take seven years. Then the real demand will be for those who can understand the psychology and cultural background of those involved in a discussion and effectively engage creatively in that discussion. The mechanics of translation will not be critical at all. Readings in literature, art and history will be critical.

So also in business, much of what the business student learns about finance, accounting and marketing will be profoundly changed by the evolution of technology. There is no easy way to prepare for such transformations. The only hope is to have a broad understanding of society and history, and a sense for philosophy, literature and aesthetics, so that one can see beyond the surface changes and anticipate deeper transformations of society and thought.

One response to “A Practical Defense of the Humanities in the 21st Century

  1. Daniel Costello October 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    The Romanization of Greek cultural influences shares similar parallels to the current push as described in your article. My snap impression is that metaphorical speech is also becoming a lost “insider language” due to highly context specific economically driven new disciplines. Business instructors also represent a large percentage of former humanities discipline refugees. So please apportion some of the blame to the humanities?

    One must remember only the last generation of North Americans to note the demise of Latin studies in terms of cultural relevancy and progessive humanities disciplines such as Greek also contract. Not so in Asia. Growth here can be directly attributable to furthering business and IT studies.These remain the highest in demand in Asia and abroad in terms of transnational course selections and are profitable venues for supporting the humanities which face less customer-driven demand.

    At the same time basic business communication skills far predate the intellectual evolution of humanities discourse as a status quo or zeitgeist arbiter even in classical history. Take the standard business full block letter in English which formats architectural ecology of an esoteric age far longer than four or five thousand years ago even perhaps predating Etruscan arches. So having business communication skills may have always been perceived of greater utility in reach and scope in the presents of the past.

    But is this really a lack of progress or foresight? If we consider the humanities as a form of intellectual biosphere is its perceived irrelevancy not simply endemic of similar exponentially decreasing rates of biological and linguistic diversity around the world as described by many global climate change conscious writers? The same might be said for increasing ubiquity of technology and its contingent communicative compartmentalisation.

    Cloud platform monopolies are reducing much textual discourse to short sms type messages with constant re-editing which further reduce delivery time and expedite process over product or form and function over content. So much constant change might be making history as an awareness of lived reality a far less defined reference point and much closer to the recent past or even present continuous for many. This “McDonaldisation” of the foundations of basic textual communication and its cultural impacts on increasingly tigher product development, learning, redundancy and delivery cycles is perhaps evident in increasing rates of functional illiteracy in many developed nations. This is in some ways a mirror-like reflection of what globalization has achieved in terms of product and process standardizations in world trade.

    This would accord with rising middle classes in developing nations taking on or transferring (outsourcing?) the (Elgin) marbles of demand driven education and international cultural cross-overs and influences from those with historically strong humanist traditions which sold off much of their industrial capacities to humanize their lifestyles and cultures? Some authors have described a coming Dark Ages type scenario among western societies in terms of enlightened decision making while others envision an approaching knowledge sharing and learning age never before seen due to humanities ghettoization. This might even make sense to the majority of English speakers today as they are second language learners acquiring business English skills for economic advancement which inflicts grammar and spelling simplifications even upon its bastard lingua franca. However trite, I tried to explain what I perceive knowledge to be to my undergraduate business students yesterday. I wrote, “Knowledge is knowing what you need to know to do what you need to do right now.”

    Finally while there is great demand for MBAs, I see two paradoxes. First, that the largest investment banks in the US have their foundations in two pivotal historical economic events. One being the finance capital market which helped fuel the two largest wars in world history and simultaneously transferred the majority of the globe’s invested wealth from London to New York. The other is that these same bankers so highly employed and employ a large percentage of Ivy League MBAs. It appears the nourishment of episteme has always been a challenging course.

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