Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Professional Human

It's probably a perennial topic. Lately, however, I've been seeing increasing concern among scholars and administrators about the status of the "humanities" in the university and in social life. A new Carnegie Foundation report argues that undergraduate business education should move towards a "liberal learning" model. On Monday, Jonathan posted his objections to MLA President Russell Berman's "vile editorial", which argues for more efficient (cost-effective) graduate studies in the humanities. The two proposals share the belief that education should produce "professionals". Indeed, on the Harvard Business Review blog last year, Bill Sullivan, one of the authors of the Carnegie report, talked about "the cause of professionalism".

It is instructive to read Sullivan's call for a "liberalized" business curriculum alongside Berman's call for a "professionalized" humanities doctoral program. In many ways the Carnegie Foundation's and the Modern Language Association's take on the future of the humanities pull in opposite directions. Sullivan wants the currently social-science-based business curriculum to look to the humanities as a model for business education. This is in part a reaction to the criticism of the business school's role in forming the minds of the people who, simplifying a little, gave us the financial crisis. The economics-based business curriculum, Sullivan says, is "too narrow". Programs

frequently fail to promote intellectual curiosity, they underemphasize flexibility of mind, and they provide too little understanding of the real business challenges their students will face. The result is that business students often take the conceptual tools they are taught not as instruments but as simple descriptions of reality. The efficient market hypothesis, it's been said, rarely gets taught as a hypothesis.

Teaching students about business the way we traditionally teach them about history, philosophy and literature, he proposes, will give students "the ability to grasp the pluralism in ways of thinking and acting that is so salient a characteristic of the contemporary world". Such professionals are just what we need.

Berman, to my mind unwisely, looks to the social sciences for a model. That is, just as business educators are learning to look to the humanities for inspiration, the humanities are trying to adapt to the way things have been done in business schools. Berman wants a three-year course-based doctoral program, rounded off with an article-based thesis, not a monograph. This, as Jonathan notes, will simply reduce the amount of reading and writing that is required to get a PhD. Note that this is at odds with the results of Arum and Roksa's widely discussed study of critical thinking and analytical reasoning among undergraduates. They found that traditional humanities programs, with strong reading and writing requirements, were virtually unique in their ability to make students, well, smarter. Social science (especially as a basis for business education), again simplifying a little, rots the brain.

Berman and Sullivan agree on one major thing. Whether as bachelor, master, or doctor, graduates should be, to use a phrase that was coined by a group of students here in Denmark, "suitable for business", that is, able to go to work, even after getting a liberal arts degree. As Berman puts it:

we must recognize that the literature PhD is already a gateway to many different careers. These varied professional directions—which deserve our validation—include opportunities as teachers throughout the educational system as well as nonfaculty positions in higher education. In addition, the literature PhD can lead to careers in the public humanities, in cultural sectors—publishing, translation, journalism, the film industry—or, frankly, anywhere in business, government, or the not-for-profit world where intensive research skills are at a premium.

This has not traditionally been an issue in business education, which presumably prepared people for a career first and foremost, and that's why the Carnegie Foundation pulls towards a more traditional set of humanistic values. It continues to presume that business majors will find gainful employment, and hopes to ensure that the people who go into business or government might also become slightly, for lack of better phrase, "better people" than those who got us into the current mess. The MLA, meanwhile, presumes that a formative immersion in the humanities will give you all those qualities of critical thinking and analytical reasoning, but will not suit you for a life in business or government.

Like Jonathan, I'm a bit saddened when the high church of liberal learning, the MLA, begins to envy the "efficiency" of the social sciences. I'm not saying the humanities are perfect. But if they want to be a formative basis for a new class of "professionals" they should not look for ways of becoming more like some other intellectual pursuit. They should search for better ways of being themselves. And that, of course, is exactly what being "human" is all about.


Anonymous said...

Well, there's a Patrick Bray who has commented very cogently on Berman's piece.

I can't help but think Berman has a secret agenda. Like create alleged PhDs who are not competitive for the good academic jobs, but can be in these teaching intensive assistant professorships.

And above all make sure people keep coming to graduate school.

Jonathan said...

Where does Bray's commentary appear?

Anonymous said...

In the comments section on Berman's piece. You can see how someone put your question, would Berman hire these people, too.

I think everyone should write in and rag on Berman.