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.