The value of the humanities

It isn’t often that you hear the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation blame another multi-billion dollar corporation’s failures on its lack of attention to the humanities and liberal arts.

So I was somewhat surprised when I came across this quote, from “Microsoft’s Lost Decade” in this month’s Vanity Fair:

In Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography Steve Jobs, Jobs acknowledged Ballmer’s role in Microsoft’s problems: “The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company.… [Then] the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when [John] Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when Ballmer took over at Microsoft. Apple was lucky and it rebounded, but I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it.”

Most interesting, however, is that Jobs put the ultimate blame on Bill Gates: “They were never as ambitious product-wise as they should have been. Bill likes to portray himself as a man of the product, but he’s really not. He’s a businessperson. Winning business was more important than making great products. Microsoft never had the humanities and liberal arts in its DNA.(emphasis added)

I worked at Microsoft during the closing years of Bill Gates’ tenure, and the first years of Balmer’s leadership, and watched the transition the article describes begin to happen. From my own experience, and from what I have heard from friends who remained at the company, the article offers a lot of insight into the ways that Microsoft—despite its enormous advantages in cash and market position—failed to keep up its leadership, and was surpassed by Apple and Google.

The primary lesson of the article is that Microsoft’s senior leaders fundamentally did not understand people: they did not understand the people who worked for them, and they did not understand the people they were trying to sell to. Within the company, they created bureaucratic structures that destroyed teamwork and long-term focus. In research and development, they ignored products, like e-readers, that could have had great customer appeal; and they also created products, like the Zune, that nobody wanted to buy.

Ultimately, businesses thrive or stagnate because human beings think their products are worth buying. Their success in producing products that customers love depends on their ability to organize large groups of human beings to come up with good ideas, refine them, and bring them to the market. Both of these tasks demand an in-depth understanding of human beings—of the human condition.

This understanding is seldom taught in business or engineering classes. It’s also, unfortunately, not always something you learn in liberal arts classes. Many in the liberal arts have tried to mimic science and engineering by turning the humanities into specialized, technical disciplines. Unfortunately, this approach usually does not inspire students to reflect more deeply on their own lives or to feel a hunger to understand the human condition.

In his 2005 Stanford University commencement address, Steve Jobs talked about how a calligraphy class he took as an undergraduate helped him, many years later, to craft the unique aesthetic of the Apple Macintosh. He also speaks at length of love, loss, and death, and how these shaped his attitudes toward his own work:

[transcript of the address here]

Viewed through a kind of narrow lens, the humanities may seem useless, as a calligraphy class seems useless for a future tech entrepreneur. And the big questions—love, death, vocation—may seem irrelevant to the bottom line. But Jobs does a good job of showing us how these human stories are intimately related to the larger story of his phenomenal successes with Apple and Pixar.

Of course, I am not interested in the humanities primarily because of the bottom line. I made more in a single year at Microsoft than I’ve made in 5 years of grad school. But I am much more satisfied with my life now than I was then. The big questions of human life are interesting and worth pursuing for their own sake.  A life driven by the bottom line is, paradoxically, worth less than a life open to more important things.

Steve Jobs was driven more by aesthetics than by the bottom line. But because many people value aesthetics more than money, they are willing to pay more for a beautiful computer or phone than for one which is utilitarian but clunky and unattractive.

Those of us who teach in the humanities should be willing to challenge the claim that an engineering or business education is more “useful” than an education in the humanities, or that humanities classes are a “waste of time” for students in engineering or business. Apple is surely as good a case study of business and technological success as any, but its success is clearly rooted in aesthetic and human values that are not usually found in business or engineering curricula.

It’s helpful to point out that inattention to human nature can lead to stagnation in business, and that an appreciation for aesthetics and a focus on what customers want can lead to runaway success.

Love, beauty, and the big questions of human life are the crown jewels of the humanities. We should not be embarrassed by them, and shy away from them in an effort to model our inquiries on the narrow and technical model of the apparently more prestigious disciplines within the university.

Am I suggesting that the humanities can replace business or engineering education? Of course not. Apple’s success required technical expertise and business savvy as much as it required an appreciation for aesthetics and human-centered computing.

But is an education in the liberal arts valuable for knowing how to use talents in business and engineering to build products that human beings will respond to? Does the knowledge of human nature that comes from wide study in the humanities help with the team interactions necessary to bring a complex product to the market? To both questions, we should be willing to argue—with good evidence to back up our argument—that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Above all, we should be willing to “stay hungry” and “stay foolish” by approaching the big questions found in art, philosophy, theology, and literature with the confidence that we have something important to offer our students—something more important than mere financial success.


About Ron Belgau

I am the founder of Spiritual Friendship; I studied philosophy and literature at University of Washington, and philosophy at Saint Louis University and Notre Dame; I have also taught medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion at Saint Louis University.
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One Response to The value of the humanities

  1. Pingback: Ideas of a University

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