Opinion: Why business needs the humanities: Focusing on STEM degrees has its own economic cost

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Students and pedestrians walking along Gould St. on the Toronto Metropolitan University campus on Jan 22.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ira Wells teaches in the Vic One program of the University of Toronto.

Imagine you are 17 years old and bound for university. You were born in 2006, two years before the economic meltdown. You are smart, industrious and, if we’re being honest, a little freaked about the future. Your life has played out against the drumbeat of disruption, economic precarity, skyrocketing real-estate prices, a youth mental health crisis and a global pandemic.

You’ve heard that AI is coming for the jobs. You know a “career,” singular, is a relic of the boomer past. And you know – because this has been drilled into you since entering your first classroom – that STEM skills, especially coding, will be your meal ticket. The humanities – art, literature, philosophy, history – are interesting subjects, sure, but stuff you can explore on your own time (or not). Your parents have probably made this clear.

You are far from alone. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S), the traditional humanities subjects of English, history, philosophy and foreign languages and literature amounted to 4 per cent of postsecondary degrees in 2020. At many name-brand American institutions – Tufts, Notre Dame, Boston University – humanities graduates have declined by half since 2012.

According to Rob Townsend, director of the humanities, arts and culture program at the AAA&S, “we’re reaching a kind of existential tipping point for a lot of departments that could lead to their elimination.”

Things aren’t much better in Canada. As a share of all postsecondary students, humanities enrollments have dropped by 50 per cent over the last 30 years, according to data from Statistics Canada. Even as overall postsecondary enrollments have dramatically grown, the humanities have continued to shrink.

“Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, enrollment in humanities was down 27 per cent,” states the 2023 annual report of Higher Education Strategy Associates, “while social sciences increased by 17 per cent, business by 16 per cent, health by 26 per cent, engineering by 43 per cent and science by 47 per cent.”

Traditional thinking once held that the health of the humanities tracked with the economy. Yet as Nathan Heller observed in a much-discussed New Yorker article, “The End of the English Major,” that has changed: “When the economy has looked up, humanities enrollments have continued falling. When the markets have wobbled, enrollments have tumbled even more.”

With humanities subjects increasingly marginal to the interests of students, donors and universities, it is worth thinking through some the larger consequences of the STEM-ing of higher education.

If current trends hold, the Canadian workforce will be increasingly ignorant of history, philosophy and literature. We will be less capable of learning from the past. Less able to apply ethical frameworks to advances in machine learning, biotechnology and nanomedicine. Less able to communicate without the assistance of machines, which will also do our thinking for us.

“Good riddance,” some may say. In a world already dominated by the “hard skills” needed for data sciences and machine learning, the humanities are about as useful as alchemy or astrology. They are next in line for the dustbin of history. Who would know better than the students clambering to get into STEM disciplines?

Business leaders tend to take a different view: “Having team members who have a good understanding of the world in its broadest sense is very important. This is best taught through studying a liberal arts program,” said Blake Goldring, executive chairman of AGF Management, in an e-mail. High performing organizations often create diverse teams of “subject matter experts (such as IT specialists), matching them with individuals possessing liberal arts backgrounds.”

Leaders are best positioned to understand how competencies in communication and collaboration, intercultural awareness, the ability to weigh evidence and form judgments amid uncertainty – skills cultivated in humanities classrooms – are crucial for successful businesses, no less than for society as a whole.

Humanities skills are often derided as “intangibles,” because they are hard to measure. Yet when they are missing from the equation, they suddenly become tangible. Deals fall apart. Teams fail to communicate. Innovation sputters. Careers stall. Leaders struggle to convey their narratives. Ultimately, we are all poorer – and not just culturally, but economically.

The humanities have always depended for their survival upon the largesse of business. But the opposite is also true. Now, before it is too late, we need to recognize the ways in which business needs the humanities.

“What can you do that a computer can’t?”

This question, more relevant than ever in the age of AI, was put forward in a 1955 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Frederick E. Pamp. This was the question, he argued, that companies needed to ask prospective employees and especially their executives.

The writing was already on the wall. As computers became more powerful, and the data they produced became more widespread, the executive’s job became less about quantitative information than about the depth and breadth of their judgment.

“On one point all authorities have agreed,” Mr. Pamp said: “the edge will be won by the company whose executives do a better job of handling the qualitative factors which remain after the measurable factors are taken out, and then putting all the pieces together into a single, dynamic whole.”

And where was this quality of mind being taught? Mr. Pamp knew the answer: liberal arts classrooms.

“The study of the humanities – of literature, art, and philosophy, and of the critical terms that these disciplines use to assess the world – is startlingly more pertinent and practical that the ‘practical’ vocational preparation.”

This was not a fringe view. 1959 saw two landmark reports on business education from the Ford and Carnegie foundations; both “decry the narrow, vocational orientation” of business schools and “call for heavy doses of the humanities,” HBR editors wrote at the time.

In our algorithmic age, the notion that business leaders need a “heavy dose of the humanities” may sound deliriously quixotic. Our business culture is more data-driven than ever. Every company, now, is a digital technology company. RBC is a tech company that sells banking and investments, just as Loblaws is a tech company that sells bananas.

Analytics are sacrosanct. Knowledge that cannot be quantified or expressed by scatterplot has been significantly downgraded, insofar as it exists at all. For years, authority figures have been promising to ”follow the science.” When was the last time you heard anyone “follow the humanities”?

Yet a humanities perspective does pervade business success stories, in ways that are not always obvious.

Take Lincoln, Ford’s luxury car brand. A few years ago, Lincoln faced an existential crisis, having lost much of its market share to BMW and Mercedes. Like many automakers, Lincoln was desperate to compete in the emerging markets of China and India, but tech-driven investments weren’t always paying off. Luxury features such as “Lane Assist” don’t work in jurisdictions lacking white lines. Driverless cars aren’t considered luxurious in cultures where employing a driver is itself a sign of social status.

As Christian Madsbjerg relates in his book, Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, Ford undertook extensive qualitative research studies to understand the “vehicle ecologies” in their emerging markets. The goal was not additional data; it was a humanistic understanding of how vehicles create meaning in different cultures.

“Ford realized that luxury experiences needed to drive the design and engineering process: a total transformation in how a company like Ford conceives of the car,” Mr. Madsbjerg wrote. Today, Lincoln sells more vehicles in China than they do in the U.S. and Canada combined.

Data and analytics are indispensable, but all too often they represent a mirage of certainty: “Our fixation with STEM erodes our sensitivity to the nonlinear shifts that occur in all human behavior,” Mr. Madsbjerg wrote. “We stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start seeing them as the truth – the only truth.”

As data and analytics are increasingly democratized by machine learning, more companies will discover competitive advantages in pursuing humanistic models. To truly understand what their products and services mean in their emerging markets, innovators will turn to languages, artworks, sacred texts, mythologies and history. To do so, they will need employees equipped with interpretive methods, who understand that “meaning” is not reducible to “data.”

A humanities-informed framework will prove crucial not only for successful organizations, but for the successful individuals who hope to rise within them.

In his 2023 book, The Leap to Leader, consultant and former New York Times writer Adam Bryant distills interviews with over 500 chief executive officers into concrete advice for every aspiring leader. Specifically, Mr. Bryant emphasizes the importance of communicating your core values, paying attention to the stories you tell about your own experience, identifying patterns to see the “bigger picture,” effective listening and understanding human motivations.

Such skills are of limited use in the data trenches, but the jump to leadership, Mr. Bryant argues, requires the ability to communicate, craft a narrative, transcend the details, demonstrate empathy and understand what makes people (including you) tick.

Liberal arts education provides a robust structure for nurturing these qualities in students. In my own introductory literature course, we might read Pride and Prejudice not only as a masterclass of irony and satire in the Regency period, but also as a fictional laboratory for understanding human motivation. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart hones our sensitivity and cultural awareness by making us experience the loss of a precolonial African world – a sense of loss that cannot be conveyed in statistics. Socrates sharpens our judgement by forcing us to rethink, from the bottom up, our assumptions about justice, virtue and reality.

Liberal arts classes do not invite students to “talk about your feelings.” They might, however, prompt you to interrogate unacknowledged values. In my own literature classes, I might ask my students whether F. Scott Fitzgerald’s title is ironic: What is so “great” about Gatsby? Lively discussion and debate ensues, often involving deeply held values. The discovery that our peers do not always share our perspective encourages self-awareness and humility, as we learn to communicate across our differences.

While such competencies were once scorned as “soft,” experts now insist that “soft-skills” are more important than ever. Employers can back-fill gaps in specialist knowledge with in-house training programs. By contrast, gaps in those so-called soft-skills – emotional intelligence, self-awareness, relationship building, collaboration – are often insurmountable.

HR departments in major Canadian organizations already face a surfeit of technically skilled “quants” who struggle with leading teams. So rare is the combination of hard and soft skills that such candidates are known in HR circles as “unicorns.”

“When hiring, woe betide the company which believes it needs only STEM graduates to lead it to success,” said Wendy Cecil, the philanthropist and former vice-president of business development at Brascan Ltd. (now Brookfield Asset Management), in an e-mail.

“Those lacking in historical or philosophical understanding, our deepest personal and social needs, are not well-equipped to make fully rounded business decisions, to stay within the law, to deliver the greatest benefit to shareholders and society at large.”

Reflecting on the relationship between business and the humanities put Ms. Cecil in mind of her late friend, Joseph Rotman, the benefactor of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“Joe was a firm believer that one should study the humanities before studying business as a profession,” she said. He “believed it was an important stepping stone to a successful business career and a rich life of the mind. Joe was a wise man.”

Humanities majors are often slapped with an unflattering stereotype: that of the purple-haired barista with the English degree – the wayward 20-something seduced by Sylvia Plath and fated to brew chai lattes for the rest of their life.

The cliché of the starving humanities major is empirically false. The Higher Education Strategy report provides an illuminating overview of graduate salaries over the last two decades: while “some commentators claim that STEM jobs most obviously lead to high-paying jobs, this does not seem to be entirely true in Canada,” the report notes. “The recovery in salaries in the latter half of the 2010s was enjoyed by all graduates, regardless of their field of study.”

In truth, the humanities open a broad spectrum of career pathways: “As many of the UK’s most successful start-ups are founded by history graduates as by engineering graduates,” the Higher Education Policy Institute notes, “and language graduates have founded more successful start-ups in the UK than math graduates.”

Can humanities majors succeed in business? Brian Silverman, who holds the J.R.S. Prichard and Ann Wilson Chair in Management at the University of Toronto, gave an “emphatic yes” when asked if traditional liberal arts training is valuable or students interested in strategic management, his specialty.

“Big data is all fine and well, but the key in strategic management is to combine data insights with judgment. The judgment comes from within the person, and traditional liberal arts education should enhance that,” Mr. Silverman said in an interview. (He emphasized that he was talking about traditional liberal arts training, which cultivates sound judgement and critical thinking skills).

Of course, many students are genuinely uninterested in humanities subjects, which is fine. Canadian companies are going to need data scientists, and plenty of them. The point is that we must stop scaring away students who are interested by amplifying Silicon Valley propaganda about the dominance of tech above all else.

As the disciplined study of the humanities inches closer to that existential abyss, some are beginning to suspect that we have drastically over-indexed on STEM, especially given the profound uncertainty around the future of work. A generation of young people have rushed to coding as the panacea, only to discover that coders may lose jobs to AI, too.

One final objection originates from within the ranks of humanists, who are loath to justify their pedagogy as “instrumental” to business. For many who teach in them, the humanities must be their own end. They are not “for” anything outside of themselves.

The humanities provide students with space to contemplate their own ends, their life’s purpose, which is not to be undervalued in the midst of a mental-health crisis, and is not reducible to educational or career outcomes. A human being is not to be “usurped by his profession,” wrote John Henry Newman in his book, The Idea of the University – advice we are still learning to heed.

But from the business perspective, the deeper purpose of the humanities is a feature, not a bug. Nobody reads Jane Austen in order to become a better business communicator, but the rigorous study of literature still inculcates communication skills that are useful for business – and it grants those skills to people who may not necessarily be seeking them. One does not preclude the other but in fact enhances it.

The study of the humanities will never be exclusively “for” business, just as business is never “for” funding arts foundations or humanities centres. Think of it this way: business relies upon the “surplus value” created in humanities classrooms, just as the humanities rely upon the surplus value created by business.

We can recommit to the reciprocal relationship between the two – or embrace the economic and spiritual immiseration that is our only alternative.