Stop saying the humanities are good for business


“Studying the humanities is good for business.” My college professors used to argue this point fiercely when challenged. At the beginning of my career, so did I.

I would insist to my colleagues (business and marketing majors, mostly) that we students of human culture, too, could find good jobs and contribute meaningfully to society, as if one’s ability to do the latter depended exclusively on the former. I was living proof, after all, the aspiring philosophy professor turned “corporate princess” (my dad’s words) who went from studying Montaigne in his original French to helping big companies invade consumers’ privacy with astonishing depth and efficiency. What can I say? Big Data paid better, and I had student loans to think about. The irony that I considered this a meaningful contribution to society is not entirely lost on me. But I digress.

In these passionate defenses, I’d go on to explain the importance of creativity in a business environment, how the world needs employees who can think critically and question the status quo, that corporate America could actually save the world that way, something something, and finish by insisting, “The humanities are good for business!”

A dose of Sartre and mindfulness for all

Lest you misinterpret my intentions, I still absolutely believe that business needs more people who’ve deeply studied the humanities. But I’m getting very tired of the argument that we should all read Sartre and study mindfulness because we’ll become more innovative, creative and forward-thinking employees (translation: we’ll make executives and shareholders more money).

By this logic, the humanities are only valuable insofar as they can help employees more effectively serve their businesses (I almost said corporate masters). That is, teach employees just enough to make them agile problem solvers and effective communicators, but not enough to make them question the implications of a system that only knows how to value things that generate more profit and wealth for the people who control that system.

If corporate America truly believed in the value of the humanities, we would celebrate Michel Foucault as well as Henry Ford. We would line our shelves not only with Carnegie and Drucker, but with Arendt, Marx and Augustine. We would speak honestly about the problems inherent in our structures of privilege rather than pay them lip service or pretend they don’t exist.

The humanities are good for civilization

The humanities are good for business, in the same way that public education, clean drinking water, and a functioning government are good for business; not because they lead to more productive employees or better sales leads but because they are basic requirements for a civilized society.

Which leads me to a question we do not ask ourselves nearly often enough in the business world: What does it mean to be civilized?

I’d argue that many business practices today are decidedly uncivilized. They rely on exploitation, deception and false consciousness, largely because employees today are very well-equipped to ask questions about business value and ROI, and very poorly equipped to ask whether it is humane to pay substandard wages, whether it is just to allow unequal pay for equal work, and whether it is civilized to respond to these and many other ethically fraught issues of our day with, “Because the market will bear it.”

“Because the market will bear it.” I hear some version of this argument all the time. We state it with such finality, such confidence in the trueness and rightness of these words, and I think this is because most of us don’t know how to imagine any other way of living.

This, we think, is what it means to be civilized. Progress, GDP, quarterly profits, Western-style free markets… this is how we measure civilization. One need look no further than our political rhetoric against countries who have chosen a different path to see how deeply this vision of civilization has taken root in our collective psyche.

Yet even a basic political theory course will teach us that there are many ways to consider what it means to be civilized, and they don’t all lead directly to industrial capitalism.

Aristotle > Industry

The writings of Aristotle are over 2,000 years old. Industrial capitalism is less than 200.

Aristotle’s ideas have shaped the minds of countless rulers, theologians, scholars and scientists. They played a central role in one of the most profound political, cultural and scientific awakenings in the history of Western civilization, the ramifications of which still ripple through our society today.

He influenced the way we think about physics, biology, psychology, poetry, politics, government, aesthetics, ethics, logic, and pretty much every other field of human knowledge.

It is a grave injustice to his legacy to say now that we should study him, not to broaden the horizons of our own human potential, not to expand our sense of wonder and possibility at the cosmos, but because it’s good for business??? Because it will make us more adaptable, more innovative, more marketable employees?

Perhaps it will, and perhaps that is even a good thing. But we are an impoverished people indeed if “business value” is the only way we know how to defend the worthiness of reading Aristotle and other such civilized pursuits.

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