On being human: Lessons from Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Higher Education

In a specific sense I am an unabashed advocate of what has come to be called the applied humanities, roughly and broadly speaking the effort to connect the study of the humanities to identifiable and practical social goods.  For me, in addition it includes the effort to develop humanities programs that take seriously that we are responsible (at least in significant part) for preparing our students for productive lives after college, preparation that I think really should be embedded within humanities curricula, advising, cocurricular programming, and the general ethos and rhetoric that we use to inculcate in our students what it means to be a humanist.

In several respects this conviction lies at the root of my advocacy for both digital humanities programs and for career planning and programming for liberal arts students, as different as these two areas seem to be on the surface.  I have little room left any more for the idea that “real learning” or intellectual work pulls up its skirts to avoid the taint of the marketplace or the hurly-burly of political arenas and that we demonstrate the transcendent value of what we do over and above professional programs by repeatedly demonstrating our irrelevance.  Far from diminishing the humanities, an insistence that what we do has direct and indirect, obvious and not so obvious connections to social value enhances the humanities.  It’s not just a selling point to a doubting public.  As I said yesterday, the only good idea is the idea that can be implemented.  We ought to be proud of the fact that we can show directly how our students succeed in life, how they apply the things they’ve learned, how they find practical ways of making meaningful connections between their academic study and the world of work.

At the same time, I will admit that some versions of this argument leave me cold.  It risks saying that the only thing that is really valuable about the humanities is what is practically relevant to the marketplace. I greet this effort to make Wordsworth a useful version of a management seminar with a queasy stomach.

It may sound like a nice day out in beautiful surroundings, but can walking around Lake District sites synonymous with Romantic poet William Wordsworth really offer business leaders and local entrepreneurs the crucial insights they need?

That is precisely the claim of Wordsworth expert Simon Bainbridge, professor of Romantic studies at Lancaster University, who believes the writer can be viewed as a “management guru” for the 21st century.

Since 2007, the scholar has taken students down into caves and out on canoes to the island on Grasmere once visited by Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and to places where many of the former’s greatest works were written, for what he called “practical exercises linked to the themes of Wordsworth’s poetry.”

Such walks, which also have been incorporated into development days for individual firms, are now being offered as a stand-alone option for local and social entrepreneurs at a rate of £175 ($274) a day.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/09/businesses-pay-british-professor-teach-them-about-wordsworth#ixzz236bQaECf 
Inside Higher Ed 

I do not find the insight here wrong so much as sad.  If the only reason we can get people to read Wordsworth is because he will enhance their management skills, we have somehow misplaced a priority, and misunderstood the role that being a manager ought to play in our lives and in the social and economic life of our society.  It is the apparent reduction of all things and all meaning to the marketplace that is to be objected to and which every educational institution worthy of the name ought to furiously resist, not the fact of marketplaces themselves.

I was lucky enough this summer to attend the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education.  To be honest, I went thinking I was going to get all kinds of advice on things like how to organize projects, how to manage budgets, how to promote programs, how to supervise personnel.  There was some of that to be sure, but what struck me most was that the Institute, under the leadership of Bob Kegan, put a high, even principal, priority on the notion that managers have to first take care of who they are as human beings if they are to be the best people they can be for their colleagues and their institutions.  You have to know your own faults and weakness, your own strengths, your dreams, and you have to have the imagination and strength of mind and heart (and body) to learn to attend to the gifts, and faults and dreams and nightmares of others before or at least simultaneously with your own.  In other words, being a better manager is first and foremost about becoming a healthier, more humane, fuller human being.

The tendency of some applied humanities programs to show the relevance of poetry by showing that it has insights in to management techniques, or the relevance of philosophy because it will help you write a better project proposal, is to misplace causes and to turn the human work of another imagination (in this case Wordsworth) into an instrumental opportunity.  The reason for reading Wordsworth, first and foremost, is because Wordsworth is worth reading, and simultaneously because the encounter with Wordsworth will give you the opportunity to be a fuller, more imaginative, more thoughtful human being than you were before.

If you become that, you will have a chance to be a better manager.  But even if you don’t become a better manager, or if you lose your job because your company is overtaken by Bain capital or because students no longer choose to afford your pricey education, you will, nonetheless, be richer.

Unemployed Philosophers Abounding; Or, It’s Much Less Fun to Talk About Unemployed Business Majors

Philosophers are in the news these days.  By what I can tell from the media, un-and-underemployed philosophy majors are sprouting from the sidewalks, infesting Occupy America movements, and crowding the lines for openings in the barista business.  I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where he witnesses the hordes of urbanites crossing London Bridge and imagines them as an original infestation of the walking dead:

Philosophers, so many, I had not realized unemployment had undone so many.

The proliferation is further astonishing since my own Department of Philosophy begs borrows and steals students from other departments to make a living.  From what I can gauge in the news media they are not looking the right places because every news reporter living seems to find them easy pickin’s right at hand at every street corner.

A few days ago I posted on a peculiar opinion piece from Frank Bruni at the New York Times, wherein philosophers and anthropologists were given as examples of what’s wrong with the American educational system, graduating as it does hordes of unemployable thinkers with their heads too far in the clouds to realize the damage they are doing to themselves by reading Immanuel Kant.  This morning in my local newspaper I was treated to Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon, featuring an unkempt and bewildered looking philosophy major on a street corner begging for food, his sign suggesting that he will “epistemologize for food.”  Finally, my day was topped off by an NPR story on the grim prospects for this year’s college grads.  The story finished with an interview with the ever omnipresent philosophy major, and noted, mockingly, that the student intended to pursue medical school after finishing his philosophy degree.  Good to see at least some philosophy major has some sense. I was actually thinking about how wonderful it was to find a student who was so accomplished in both the sciences and the humanities.  More fool I.

How philosophers came to represent the ills of recent college graduates is beyond reckoning.  Though I did do some reckoning.  According to Stats from the Department of Education    between 2006 and 2011, American colleges and Universities graduated approximately 117,891 philosophy majors.  In the same time period these same colleges and universities graduated 1,687,105 business majors.  Give or Take.

According to a Georgetown University study, recent humanities majors unemployment rate is about 9.4%, which means that we probably have about 11,081 unemployed philosophy majors running around loose and unattended.

By comparison, according to the Georgetown study 7.4% of recent business majors are unemployed.  Which means that 126,532 business majors are running around loose and unattended.  Give or Take.

I think the outcome of this entirely off the cuff analysis is that the average person crowding into line for barista openings at Starbucks is probably not a philosopher.  I’m wondering why there are no interviews with business majors on how they feel about the fact that their educational choices did not prepare them for the job market.

We shouldn’t laugh off the difficulties of these figures in general.  Recent college graduates are desperately hurting, whether they majored in philosophy or business;  they are loaded with debt and many are not finding jobs.  And while philosophers are struggling marginally more than some others, the point is that philosophy majors are not hurting in some extraordinary fashion because they have chosen to major in philosophy.  This is a generational problem visited on this generation of student through political, economic, and cultural decisions that were not of their doing or making.  To trash philosophy students as if they were witless is a snide form of victimizing victims of  a system and culture these students did not create.  It relieves us of responsibility to the many who are struggling and enables us to imagine that it is all their fault because of the poor educational choices they’ve happened to make.  Ironically, it enables us to ignore the plight of 128,000 unemployed business students as well, since they have all come to be represented by unkempt and irresponsible philosophers.

I don’t buy it.  A student thoughtful enough to read and think through Kant is thoughtful enough to be aware of what she might be getting herself in to as a philosophy major.  Such students deserve better than mockery and contempt.  They deserve our gratitude in reminding us that an education is about more than just the bottom line.  That we do not give them this is to our discredit, not to theirs.

Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop in Search of CEOs

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.

Humanities and the workplace: or, bodysurfing the Tsunami.

As I suggested in my last post on the demise of Borders, book lovers have lived in an eternal tension between the transcendent ideals their reading often fosters and the commercial realities upon which widespread literacy has depended. The same tension is broadly evident in the Humanities response to professional programs or just more broadly the question of career preparation. We are not wrong to say that an education in history or English is much more than career preparation; nor are we wrong to insist that a college education has to be about much more than pre-professional training. (Not least because most college graduates end up doing things a long distance from their original preparation, and we ought to see that humanities in combination with other knowledges in arts and sciences is at least as good at preparing students for the twists and turns of their eventual career, and perhaps even better, than fields focused on narrower practical preparations

However we are absolutely wrong to assume that questions of career are extraneous or ought to be secondary to our students or our thinking about how we approach curricula.

Daniel Everett, dean of Arts and sciences at Bentley University offers a provocative refection on the need to integrate humanities in to professional education. According to Everett

“Programs that take in students without proper concern for their future or provision for post-graduate opportunities — how they can use what they have learned in meaningful work — need to think about the ethics of their situation. Students no longer come mainly from the leisured classes that were prominent at the founding of higher education. Today they need to find gainful employment in which to apply all the substantive things they learn in college. Majors that give no thought to that small detail seem to assume that since the humanities are good for you, the financial commitment and apprenticeship between student and teacher is fully justified. But in these cases, the numbers of students benefit the faculty and particular programs arguably more than they benefit the students themselves. This is a Ponzi scheme. Q.E.D.”

These are harsh words, but worth considering. I tend to not like Bentley’s particular solutions to the degree that they reduce the humanities to an enriching complement to the important business of, well, business. However, I do think we need to think of new ways of creating our majors that will prepare students for the realities of 21st century employment. Majors that allowed for concentrations in digital humanities would prepare students to engage the changing nature of our disciplines while also gaining technical skills that could serve them well in business. New joint programs with the sciences like those found in medical humanities programs could prepare students in new ways for work in the health care industry. Everett warns of what may happen of humanities programs don’t creatively remake themselves to meet the changing needs of our contemporary world:

“If, like me, you believe that the humanities do have problems to solve, I hope you agree that they are not going to be solved by lamenting the change in culture and exhorting folks to get back on course. That’s like holding your finger up to stop a tidal wave. Thinking like this could mean that new buildings dedicated to the humanities will wind up as mausoleums for the mighty dead rather than as centers of engagement with modern culture and the building of futures in contemporary society.”

Again, I don’t like all of the particular responses Everett has advocated, but I do agree that there is a problem to be addressed that continued proclamations about transferable skills is unlikely to solve. What is sometimes called the applied humanities may be a way of riding the wave rather than being drowned by it.