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Why should business engage with the humanities?

This blog originally appeared on the Engaging With Humanities blog at the Saïd Business School.

“The business of business is business”—right? Well, maybe. But Milton Friedman’s glib comment needn’t be taken at face value. What does “business” mean? Can it not do more than just maximising shareholder value or pursuing profit? How much more, and more in what way, and what kind of more—those questions remain. But if you want an answer to question of whether business is about more than simply making money, most people in business will say Yes. Business is a very nuanced activity, and people do it for many different reasons: satisfaction, challenge, social change, political influence, and so forth. Moreover, there is more to making money than business; if you want to make money, you need more than just business skills.

But then what? If you admit that there’s more to life than meets the eye, then how can you perceive what the eye alone cannot? If thinking about all this makes things more complicated, what tools help to deal with that complexity? And if the skills and tools of business are insufficient to handle this reality, either because they are misused or not fit for purpose, then what else is necessary? Research in a variety of fields shows that those who don’t ask questions like these at some point in their careers tend not to do as well, by almost any measure, as those who do ask (Dimov & Shepherd, 2005; British Council; Booz, Allen, Hamilton, Ipsos, 2013; Archer & Davison, 2010; Lowden, Hall, Elliot, & Lewin, 2011; Carnevale & Cheah, 2013; National Humanities Alliance, 2014). And those who do ask these sorts of questions often attribute their success to their ability to think broadly, deeply, critically, and in conjunction with others (Kronman, 2007; Nussbaum, 2012; Roth, 2015; Bate, 2011; Small, 2014; McMurtry, 2002; Menand, 2010; Kreager, 2013; Drakeman, 2015). How do they acquire these skills? One way, is by engaging with the humanities.

A recent Oxford report on the economic value of British humanities graduates demonstrates this amply, marshalling evidence to show that “the five largest subjects have all participated in the marked increase in Financial sector contributions to the economy over the period…. There is an overall rise in Humanities employment (average subject trend), commensurate to about half of the percentage increase in GDP over the period” (Kreager, 2013, p. 29). In other words, people trained in the humanities have significantly benefited the economy.

How does engaging with the humanities benefit business?

The data in the Oxford report, along with those many other sources, show in various ways that there is benefit to business engaging with the humanities. But how does it have this beneficial effect? An answer to this big question has to do less with the nature of business—whether understood along the lines of Milton Friedman or not—and more with the nature of the individuals and groups of people who conduct business. C. Wright Mills, a great American sociologist, wrote in the 1950s about the “sociological imagination” as a type of mind-set by which individuals could most usefully understanding social life (Mills, 1959). Anthony Giddens summarises Mills’ idea as “the application of imaginative thought to the asking and answering of sociological questions. The sociological imagination involves ‘thinking oneself away’ from the familiar routines of day-to-day life,” (Giddens, 2013). For Mills, imagination is about achieving critical distance and of using one’s mind to understand the world instead of just moving through it without questioning anything. But he is particular about his use of the word imagination, observing that without some rules for thinking, and some appropriate constraints, imagination can run wild. For imagination to be useful, and for individual imaginations to interact productively instead of destructively—i.e., for individuals to interact in stable society—they must operate systematically. For Mills, the sociologist has the right sort of mind to understand these systems. Imagination, understood in this systematic way, is a matter of science, social science.

It’s interesting that Mills offered this formulation in 1950s America. The wars of earlier the 20th century, in Europe and Asia, had highly prioritised science as a social force: not just as the underpinning of the “military-industrial complex” that had been mobilised to conduct the wars, but also as a mode of thought, a daily awareness, in many people’s minds. Domestic life in the States, for a large proportion of the population at this time, was benefitting tangibly from science. Social life, increasingly, could be understood as a consequence of science. It was wealthier, freer, cleaner, healthier than it had been a generation before—and people attributed these improvement to science. (Let us set aside for another time the massively important absences in this observation; that not everyone was wealthier, freer, cleaner, healthier, etc; nor were these social benefits of science evenly distributed.)

Mills pointedly makes claims for a science of social life, and for a rather specific use of the word “imagination”, by asserting that other forms of enquiry and creativity than science—art, literature, religion—are inadequate to the task of situating the individual within society. Had they not, hitherto, failed to improve the lot of man at the same pace now so evident in the achievements of science? Books and art are nice, he implies, but mainly by making more bearable lives that are nasty, poor, brutish and short. Science, on the other hand, has started truly making a different in social life. And a scientific understanding social life—a sociological imagination—best equips us to understand this process and to live in this scientific world. Mills isn’t a complete philistine, but he’s certainly no Romantic when it comes to the role that the humanities play in social life: “It does not matter whether [the most important] qualities [of mind] are to be found [in the humanities]; what matters is that men do not often find them there” (p. 17).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak comments that Mills’ defence of sociology is tantamount to the poet Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry”, in making claims for its champion to be the “unacknowledged legislator of the world” and the discipline of disciplines for its time (Spivak, 2004, pp. 572, note 37). A particularly pugnacious public intellectual, Spivak situates Mills’ work in its context—1950s, white, male, upper-middle-class America—specifically to undermine it. In an article about “righting wrongs” she takes issue with the state of American education nearly 50 years after Mills: what is wrong with it, she says quite forcefully, is that it trivialises the humanities. Were more students taught to read literature, and taught better, they would be better able to cope with life, better able to continue improving it for each other, better able to advance as individuals and as a society. Why is this? When they read, individuals enter into the minds of others. Such a position is strongly echoed in some of the debates raging around freedom of expression on college and university campuses today.

For Spivak as for Mills, imagination about critical distance. While for Mills this is achieved through a sort of objectivity, for Spivak it is almost the opposite: a kind of subjective thinking that, if properly educated, can achieve even more for individuals and societies than Mills’, and can do so in more resilient and ethical ways less prone to abuse:

A training in literary reading is a training to learn from the singular and the unverifiable. Although literature cannot speak, this species of patient reading, miming an effort to make the text respond, as it were, is a training not only in poiesis, accessing the other so well that probable action can be prefigured, but teleo-poiesis, striving for a response from the distant other, without guarantees. (Spivak, 2004, p. 532)

Like many literary intellectuals, Spivak is an appalling stylist; it is a sad but inescapable irony, and let’s complain about it later. But to paraphrase: training in literature allows individuals to see through the categories and generalisations of science, the basic principles and fundamental mechanisms that science seeks to establish and use, to the truths that escape scientific enquiry. In short: science isn’t everything, and if you think it is you’re behaving irresponsibly to yourself and to your society. Also note that Spivak writes about training in literature, not literature itself; her claims are for the improving power of a literary education, more than anything else. Books have no intrinsic magic; but people who study them do benefit themselves and others.

Become better business people by becoming better humans

Anthony Reed, a young professor of African-American Studies at Yale, spoke directly to Spivak’s ideas when asked about the value of studying the humanities, saying that Spivak’s view of “literature foregrounds the singular (what is unique, not necessarily exemplary, messy, particular) and the unverifiable (what escapes social science paradigms)”. For Reed, there is value in thinking about African-American lives in their singularity, because when absorbed into a category their individual experiences get erased. In other words, without that attention on singularity, important aspects of life are lost:

Considering African American literature and culture, and the lives of its creators and consumers, requires habits of mind and attention that demand more of us, demand that we think beyond what is encapsulated by terms like “diversity” to think about the particularity and singularity of a life. (Reed, 2016)

To think like this, to have these habits of thought, is crucial and urgent. But it is also very tricky without the right skills—which is why it is important to study the humanities:

There are many questions that escape science alone…. What [the humanities] can do is track, comment on, and conceptualize those contests over the nature of the truth or of “hard facts.” Likewise, those studying the humanities are unlikely to produce new medical research, but they can ask hard questions about what it means that so many medical advances have depended on enslaved or otherwise subjected women and men, and encourage us to develop the ethical frameworks for other kinds of knowledge, and for the uses of knowledge.

For Reed, the value of studying the humanities complements the scientifically informed social world that we now inhabit. The humanities temper the risks inherent in our science, and heighten our sense of responsibility in its use and its consequences:

Rather than teaching us the agreed-upon facts of the world, or methods to produce more facts of a similar kind, literature and philosophy can teach us how to live, what it means to be alive, and new possibilities for the human itself.

This last point seems to me enormously relevant: that studying the humanities in a scientific social world enables us to do even more with these excellent tools we have made for ourselves. It is an advantage, not a distraction—a complement, not a substitute—that we neglect at our peril, but also at the cost of our potential to develop, as individuals and as societies.

And what does this all mean for business? Quite simply, we can become better business people if we engage with the humanities.

Works Cited

Archer, W., & Davison, J. (2010). Graduate Employability: What do Employers Think and Want? Council for Industry and Higher Education.

Bate, J. (2011). The Public Value of the Humanities. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

British Council; Booz, Allen, Hamilton, Ipsos. (2013). Culture at Work.

Carnevale, A. P., & Cheah, B. (2013). Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings. Georgetown University, Georgetown Public Policy Institute, Center on Education and the Workforce. Georgetown University.

Dimov, D., & Shepherd, D. (2005). Human capital theory and venture capital firms: exploring “home runs” and “strike outs”. Journal of Business Venturing , 20 (1), 1-21.

Drakeman, D. (2015). Why we need the humanities: Life Science, Law and the Common Good. Palgrave Macmillan.

Giddens, A. (2013). Sociology (7th ed.). Cambridge: Polity.

Kreager, P. (2013). Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: The Hidden Impact. The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Kronman, A. (2007). Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lowden, K., Hall, S., Elliot, D., & Lewin, J. (2011). Employers’ Perceptions of the Employability Skills of New Graduates. University of Glasgow, Edge Foundation, SCRE Centre. University of Glasgow.

McMurtry, J. (2002). Value Wars: The Global Market Versus the Life Economy . Pluto Press.

Menand, L. (2010). The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. W. W. Norton & Company.

Mills, C. W. (1959). Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

National Humanities Alliance. (2014). Arguments for the Value of the Humanities,.

Nussbaum, M. (2012). Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Reed, A. (2016, January 6). In conversation: Anthony Reed on the importance of the study of literature and the humanities. (B. C. Martell, Interviewer) YaleNews.

Roth, M. (2015). Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Small, H. (2014). The Value of the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spivak, G. C. (2004). Righting Wrongs. South Atlantic Quarterly , 103 (2/3), 523-581.