One sign of the crisis of confidence in the humanities is that we keep feeling compelled to trot out CEOs to make our case for us. It’s a little like the way we cited Freud in graduate school even if we believed the emperor had no clothes, just because we knew our professors believed he did. And so, while we’d like to be citing John Henry Newman on the Idea of a Christian University or Socrates on the tragedy of an unexamined life, we look to the world of business for hopeful confirmation. This is the way of both presidents and preachers, so why not professors.
I’m not too proud to play that game, so I note this recent essay from Jason Trennert in Forbes, reminding us again that there are lessons important to the boardroom that are learned best in history books and not in business seminars.
I was fortunate enough to attend great schools, earning both a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA, and I’ve wondered more times than I care to admit in the last few years whether I learned a damn thing.
After considerable thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the broader, more liberal arts- oriented courses I took in my undergraduate years did far more to help me to adapt to what was deemed to be “economically unprecedented” than the more technical lessons I learned in business school. Not once in the last three years did I feel compelled to develop more complex mathematical models to help me discern what was happening.
This was due, at least in part, to an almost immediate revelation that it was these same models that sowed the seeds of the financial collapse in the first place. The financial crisis didn’t prompt me to do more math but to read quite a bit more history.
I believe that the key to success in any enterprise is the ability to discriminate and discard what is not essential to the success of the enterprise. In 1320 William of Occam wrote “What can be done with fewer assumptions is done in vain with more.”
The study of philosophy is critically concerned with asking the right questions and discarding what is superfluous. Literature in all its forms gives us access to an immeasurably rich ocean of human thought and imagination, throughout the ages. It encapsualtes centuries of experience and from it we can learn to ask the right questions, to make the correct and critical assumptions.
The more technical areas of study provide very useful structures and tools for processing and testing the critical ideas that emerge from our experience, study and imagination. My own view is that educational institutions should provide and encourage learning for the individual in both the liberal arts and the sciences.
We should not think in terms of the liberal arts and the sciences being mutually exclusive.