|Reading (La Lecture) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1891 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)|
There's so much happening in the news every day, it's difficult to keep up. It feels as if we're caught in a current and are fighting it with every swipe of the phone, swimming against a digital riptide while powered only with thumbs to propel us through the water.
There's a temptation to undertake a digital detox, but sometimes, it's just not an option. Leaders are expected to make sense of it all—to parse through all of the facts flying at them, and to do so, they need to put the pieces together using perception and imagination to create insights and informed decisions.
Perception, imagination and insights come from years of experience on the job, but they also come from being widely read and learning how to think critically. These are attributes that are a consequence of an education in the humanities.
In the age of the rise of STEM education, philosophizing about the humanities might seem a counterintuitive. As with all of my essays, I have a point—one that will be explained by way of some of the great thinkers of the past (and present).
A Virginia Vision
When Thomas Jefferson envisioned the University of Virginia in 1818, he set out with some guiding principles in his Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia. He stressed ideals bound by honor and duty, of enlightenment, and the greater good.
To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business.
To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts, and accounts in writing.
To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties.
To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.
And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.
He went on to prescribe various branches of higher education, such as government and civics, agriculture, mathematics, manufacturing, the arts, and more. In summing up, Jefferson advocated that education should advance "the prosperity, the power, and the happiness of a nation."
If you read the full excerpt of the Report, there's a subtle shift from those ideals related to morals and enlightenment and those that are more practical in nature. As a classically-educated man of his time, he understood the importance of the care and feeding of the mind, but it was no less important that the care and feeding of one's own family—something that results from "transaction of his own business" and with any luck, ends in "prosperity."
As America developed from an awkward agrarian youth to a full adult of the Industrial Age, the caretakers of education evolved from the bookish types to industrialists and men of a practical nature, who knew how to measure output and productivity. And before we knew it, higher education became not only practical, but essential for upward mobility.
That's not to say that business and education are separate concepts; they sail on the same ocean that is the almighty dollar. Indeed, the business of higher education is struggling, as the tempest of COVID-19 is rocking already precarious ecosystem, ready to dash its ships upon the shoals.
When students venture into the "real world," as it's so often called from the halls of the academy, they often leave behind what they've gained from university settings. Degrees in hand after a sunny spring commencement ceremony, they accept job offers and plunge headlong into a new environment, eagerly learning a trade—a trade, odds are, that their liberal arts institutions or humanities degrees have not prepared them.
Or have they?
Dust Off Your Shakespeare
At first blush, Plato doesn't seem to be of much use in computer programming; Hannibal may have crossed the Alps on elephants, but he can't navigate an algorithm for an autonomous vehicle; and Abraham Lincoln thought that the world would little note nor long remember what he said, but can he help write ad copy?
Ralph Waldo Emerson bridged the theoretical and the practical in "The American Scholar," a speech he gave to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa in 1837, in which he discerned the difference between the "Man Thinking" and the bookworm:
"Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books…Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution."
He of course meant not that these are two separate states of being (humans are almost never entirely one thing or another—we're complex that way), but that if we apply what we've come to learn on the printed page to our own experiences, we can create new and better opportunities for ourselves.
In fact, Emerson plainly stated the interplay between our work lives and our education: "When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read become luminous with manifold allusion."
The Spacious Country of the Mind
As I select a topic to write about each week (my labor and invention), I find myself inspired as I read various sources—books, articles, newsletters, etc. Current events are filtered through this topical lens, and everything takes more meaning.
I've made no secret that one of my regular resources is Lapham's Quarterly, a publication that in each issue captures a wealth of history and knowledge, which Will and Ariel Durant called "a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing." (The Lessons of History)
But what can such figures of the past teach us about digital communications, leadership in the age of a COVID-19, or the security concerns of an enterprise SaaS purchase? What good are history, literature and philosophy when engineers are trying to complete their code?
Just over a decade ago, Lewis Lapham noted that he regularly came across academic journals and alumni magazines with "articles that might as well be entitled 'What In God's Name Are the Humanities, and Why Are They of Any Use to Us Here in the Bright Blue Technological Wonder of the Twenty-First Century?'"
Technology has advanced well beyond its capabilities in Mr. Lapham's observation in 2008. But the need for humanities has not. Since then, we've seen the fine-tuning of artificial intelligence, the creation of the gig economy, and the rise of Facebook's power. As a result, we've seen unconscious built-in biases in A.I., a feudal class system made up of taxi-driving serfs, and a global communications platform that puts the very idea of democracy at risk led by a CEO who has all the power of a dictator.
When you develop a business primarily through the lens of engineering, algorithms and technology, and fail to properly account for human behavior as discernible by historic events and trends, this is what happens.
Enjoy those computer science degrees while you have them, Mark Cuban says. Because with the rise of A.I., the ability to program will be quickly assumed by machines. Longer term, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills will be more valued because these are things that are bound by emotions and empathy. He even thinks that in 10 years, a philosophy degree will be worth more than a computer science degree.
The humanities give us an opportunity to apply perspective and ethics to the field of technology. To not only game out the potential scenarios, but to ask and answer the hows and whys before those scenarios even exist.
Voltaire once asked, "Is there any one so wise as to learn by the experience of others?" While no one has lived exactly as any one of us will, we can turn to the stories from those statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers from history and go from bookworms to Humans Thinking.
Our heritage is the key to our humanity.