Business Education and the Humanities

The question before us, whether business schools and business majors ought to include a serious exposure to the humanities in their programs of study, would appear to be an open-and-shut case. Of course they should. The humanities concern themselves with our human natures in their totality, and with the Lebenswelt in which those natures operate. Rightly pursued and rightly ordered, the humanities can do things, and teach things, and preserve things, and illuminate things, that can be accomplished in no other program of study. The novels of Dostoevsky and the tragedies of Shakespeare instruct us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. The study of our history nourishes and sustains our shared memories and connects us with our civilization’s past as well as with the men and women who have come before us. The study of philosophy teaches us how to free our minds from mere habit and custom, and to ask what the good life is for us humans, guiding us in the search for civic ideals and institutions that will make the good life possible, and help us to live lives that are oriented toward the highest human ends.

One could go on like this, passing through each of the humanities disciplines and making similar claims. But the rehearsal of such platitudes—and they are platitudes, even if they are true—evades the harder issues. The questions before us should not be phrased in a self-serving way: “why business schools need the humanities,” and “what business students need to learn from the humanities.” The more practical and revealing way to formulate the questions would be to ask: “of what possible use to business schools are the humanities as they are currently practiced,” and “what, if any, real illumination can the humanities as currently practiced bring to the life and work of business students”? Those questions get at the real, practical problem faced by the project of including humanities courses in business-school instruction.

Today’s English professors are profoundly wary of the literary imagination, having been cowed into making its productions conform to predetermined political criteria, so that literature itself becomes in their hands little more than an exercise in evaluating better or worse political object lessons.

In other words, the burden goes both ways. It is not enough to decry the narrowness and other deficiencies of a typical American business education, if the remedy being proposed is the imposition of the kind of courses—narrow and parochial in their own, different way—that departments of English, history, philosophy, and the rest now typically offer. We of course would prefer that business education not be narrowly technical in character, devoid of any elements that might show how business activity ought to be understood as part of a larger whole in the lives of both its practitioners and the material and moral life of the communities in which they work. But do our English professors know how to speak respectfully and effectively to the sensibilities of business students? How many have the requisite knowledge and sympathy to appreciate something of what the world looks like to a businessman? How many works of distinguished literature deal in a sympathetic and believable way with businessmen and the world of business? Why so few? What does that mean? We humanities types like to assume that the sole reason for plummeting course enrollments and majors in our disciplines is the lamentable vocationalism of the current crop of American students. But the possibility that we might ourselves bear much of the blame is rarely considered. We have lost the ability to convey to others what is distinctive and insightful about our way of knowing.

To stick with the study of literature for the moment, it utterly violates the spirit of literature, and robs it of its value, to reduce it to something else. But that is what has happened. There is a presumption among scholars that legitimate interest in Dickens or Proust or Conrad derives solely from the extent to which they can be read to confirm the abstract propositions of political theorists, and promote the correct preordained political attitudes, or lend support to the identity politics du jour. Worse yet, there is an increasingly entrenched dogma that only blacks can write about blacks, only Hispanics about Hispanics, etc., and all writers are required to “stay in their lane,” or risk a well-deserved “cancellation.” So much for the once-majestic power of the literary imagination. Today’s English professors are profoundly wary of the literary imagination, having been cowed into making its productions conform to predetermined political criteria, so that literature itself becomes in their hands little more than an exercise in evaluating better or worse political object lessons.

Such reductionism is self-defeating. The distinctive task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences, or the standard business-school or professional-school curriculum, is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, supply-chain management, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition in its fullness, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon.

This describes the humanities as properly understood and practiced. It should not be impossible to graft that kind of sensibility and that kind of study onto a solid curriculum in business. But it will not work simply to stuff in courses that come out of the English department’s current offerings and call it a day. That won’t work. The courses will need to be dedicated courses, thought out carefully, attending to the requirements, and deficiencies, in the standard business education. They probably will have to be taught by faculty dedicated to the task.

That should not be impossible. There remains a handful of splendid teachers of literature who somehow, miraculously, have managed to pass through their graduate-school formation and clear the hurdles of professionalization without losing the love that had brought them. The exercise of thinking through the project of teaching literature to business students could be an ideal way for such teachers to think through the renewal of the humanities themselves. It would help if the teachers involved had sufficient breadth of knowledge, humility, and life experience to refrain from imagining that they were bringing the gospel to the heathen.

But no one should be under any illusion about how difficult this would be. Unless business schools want to take up the work of fundamentally reforming the humanities, and are prepared to expend the funds it will take to accomplish this goal, they should look with suspicion on any effort to beef up humanities requirements in their curricula. They will have to do the jobs themselves.