[Susan notes: Michael Malone's article to which these letters respond is worth reading, even though it seems simplistic about the divisions between the humanities and the sciences and jarring in its conclusion. Decades ago, when I worked on a Master's degree in medieval literature, I knew it had no 'practical value' in the world of work. I do wonder if today I'd have the nerve to choose the same course of study.]
To the editor
From Multiple authors
Published in Wall Street Journal (10/30/2012)
Even as he argues cogently for closer alignment between the sciences and humanities, Michael Malone ( How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities, op-ed, Oct. 25) overstates the distance between the two pillars of a liberal arts education, and he understates the humanities' value to society. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences has found broad evidence of collaboration and interdependence, not competition, between the "two cultures." More importantly, the humanities are vital not only for our global competitiveness but also for cultivating historical memory, critical thinking, international awareness and the knowledge and skills necessary for full and active participation in civic life.
To avoid a "bonfire of the humanities," we must recognize that the humanities' contributions are so numerous and so fundamental to our culture, our democracy--and yes, our economy—that their "withering away" is as unthinkable as the loss of our humanity itself.
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
To this former English teacher, it was heartening to read high-tech guru Santosh Jayaram say that English majors are exactly the people he is looking for. However, I disagree with Mr. Malone that "most of all" story-telling will be the competitive edge in the tech world, over imagination and metaphor. I would suggest that as people's attention spans continue to shrink, the ability to communicate with metaphors and analogies (visual language) will become even more important than story-telling. Both stories and metaphors resonate emotionally and visually with listeners and consumers, but the latter does so more quickly and with greater stickiness.
It took Mr. Malone three paragraphs to lay out the issues or the "conflict" between the two cultures, but only one image to clinch his point: "Science merely nods and says, 'I see your Jane Austen monographs and deconstructions of "The Tempest" and raise you stem-cell research and the iPhone'— and then pockets all the chips on the table." The nature of the problem, science's competitive advantage, and its overwhelming power communicated instantly in one concentrated gambling metaphor.
We hear constantly that Western values are under assault, yet we don't encourage the learning of those values in our schools. No one disputes the importance of math and science, but if our students are going to defend our values, they're going to have to understand what they are. It's the humanities that will teach them.
A prudent student or parent would chose as best he can a course of study likely to yield income sufficient to pay off the student loan and support a life away from the parents' home.
I had to laugh at Mr. Malone's quote from Santosh Jayaram to the effect that "the battleground in business" has shifted from engineering, "which anyone can do," to story-telling, "for which many fewer people have real talent.To say that engineering is something that "anyone can do" is going to draw laughter from those who have actually looked at engineering problems.
In business, we no longer have the luxury of time to tell our stories. Sometimes we have exactly 140 characters to capture attention and provoke action.
To gain and retain a competitive business edge, we must be able to harness the power of language to persuade investors, attract customers and energize co-laborers. The faster, stronger, bigger digital platforms provide us with first knowledge, but it's the ability to understand and act on that knowledge that gives us an economic advantage.
Whether it's in the Bible, the "Iliad," a tweet, an email, a text or a status update, the power of language carries the day. To favor geek over grammarian, or technology over anthropology won't equip our young people to fire on all competitive cylinders.
Anne Deeter Gallaher
My undergraduate degree is in history. I went on to medical school and have found that my liberal arts background is one of my biggest assets in relating to patients and being a compassionate physician. My son graduated from Washington and Lee University four years ago with a degree in English. He pursued a career in finance and was actively sought after by investment banks because of his major in English and his ability to write and communicate proposals to clients. The "two cultures" not only mesh very well but actually depend on each other in a wide variety of human endeavors. Long live the liberal arts major!
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