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How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities

Today is the final day of looking at some of the ‘best of’s in articles talking about the value of a liberal arts education.  This is from the Wall Street Journal, October 2012.   Hope you have enjoyed thinking about the complexities of the liberal arts, and the richness it can bring to our students’ minds and lives.

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October 24, 2012, 7:01 p.m. ET

How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities

‘English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for,’ one successful Silicon-Valley entrepreneur recently told me.

By MICHAEL S. MALONE

A half-century ago in his famous “Two Cultures” speech, C.P. Snow defined the growing rift between the world of scientists (including, increasingly, the commercial world) and that of literary intellectuals (including, increasingly, the humanities). It’s hard to imagine the sciences and the humanities ever having been united in common cause. But that day may come again soon.

Today, the “two cultures” not only rarely speak to one another, but also increasingly, as their languages and world views diverge, are unable to do so. They seem to interact only when science churns up in its wake some new technological phenomenon—personal computing, the Internet, bioengineering—that revolutionizes society and human interaction and forces the humanities to respond with a whole new set of theories and explanations.

Not surprisingly, as science has grown to dominate modern society, the humanities have withered into increasing irrelevancy. For them to imagine that they have anything approaching the significance or influence of the sciences smacks of a kind of sad, last-ditch desperation. Science merely nods and says, “I see your Jane Austen monographs and deconstructions of ‘The Tempest’ and raise you stem-cell research and the iPhone”—and then pockets all of the chips on the table.

All of this may seem like a sideshow—in our digital age the humanities will limp along as science consolidates its triumph. There is, after all, a distinct trajectory to industries and disciplines that are about to be annihilated by technology. Typically, those insular worlds operate along with misplaced confidence. They expect an industry evolution; they fail to recognize that they are facing a revolution—and if they don’t utterly transform themselves, right now, it will destroy them. But of course, they never do.

I watched this happen in almost every tech industry, and now it is spreading to almost every other industry and profession. Medicine, education, governance, the military and my own profession of journalism. And so I found myself earlier this year talking with the head of the English department where I teach. The department’s tenured faculty had been reduced to just a handful of professors, many nearing retirement; the rest of the staff was mostly part-time adjunct lecturers. And the students? Little more than half the number of majors of just a decade earlier. I had seen this before.

I asked him: How bad is it? “It’s pretty bad,” he said. “And this economy is only making it worse. There are parents now who tell their kids they will only pay tuition for a business, engineering or science degree.”

Aversion to risk, lack of research money, dwindling market share, a declining talent pool. That is how mature industries die; perhaps it is the same story with aging fields of thought. But hope for the humanities may be on the horizon, coming from an unlikely source: Silicon Valley.

A few months back I invited a friend to speak in front of my professional writing class. Santosh Jayaram is the quintessential Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur: tech-savvy, empirical, ferociously competitive, and a veteran of Google,Twitter and a new start-up, Dabble. Afraid that he would simply run over my writing students, telling them to switch majors before it was too late, I asked him not to crush the kids’ hopes any more than they already were.

Santosh said, “Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” He explained: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up and getting into full production.

These days, he said, everything has been turned upside down. Most products now are virtual, such as iPhone apps. You don’t build them so much as construct them from chunks of existing software code—and that work can be contracted out to hungry teams of programmers anywhere in the world, who can do it in a couple of weeks. 

But to get to that point, he said, you must spend a year searching for that one undeveloped niche that you can capture. And you must also use that time to find angel or venture investment, establish strategic partners, convince talented people to take the risk and join your firm, explain your product to code writers and designers, and most of all, begin to market to prospective major customers. And you have to do all of that without an actual product.

“And how do you do that?” Santosh said. “You tell stories.” Stories, he said, about your product and how it will be used that are so vivid that your potential stakeholders imagine it already exists and is already part of their daily lives. Almost anything you can imagine you can now build, said Santosh, so the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors,” he said.

Asked once what made his company special, Steve Jobs replied: “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.”

Could the humanities rebuild the shattered bridge between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” and find a place at the heart of the modern world’s virtual institutions? We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first-century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith.

The demand is there, but the question is whether the traditional humanities can furnish the supply. If they can’t or won’t, they will continue to wither away. But surely there are risk-takers out there in those English and classics departments, ready to leap on this opportunity. They’d better hurry, because the other culture won’t wait.

Mr. Malone is the author of the recently published “The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory” (St. Martin’s Press). This op-ed is based on his speech at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University on Oct. 18.

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Category: academics