Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Knowing which questions are worth asking

A beautiful defense of the value of the humanities--even and especially for future businessmen and -women--in today's Times.


Azulao said...

Thanks for posting this, Flavia, it was lovely.

Unfortunately, the end of the story was sad:

"But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities."

So we ended up with Enron, BP, and dear, dear Mr. Madoff.

This just makes your job more important: taking the future Bell (or whatever) execs and forcing them to realize that life is more than the production/consumption rat-wheel.

G-Fav said...

I enjoyed this piece, Flave! I hadn't known that Bell (Bell Labs?) engaged in this. Too bad they don't exist anymore, along with the other once-great U.S. pure-R&D institutions.

Something here is bugging me a little, though. Maybe I'm overdefensive because I'm a mostly pro-corporate, engineering-degreed person. In my experience, execs are usually liberal arts majors to begin with, and only sometimes "engineering defectors," right? (I am probably trampling some definitional line of "liberal arts isn't necessarily humanities", but my point is that they're rarely math majors.)

Another thing I want to say is in response to Azulao. Execs are usually driven by desires to not be fired, and to feed their families. At the senior exec level, they try to not be fired by also focusing on generating lots of cash for the company. So while I agree that BOARD MEMBERS (the folks at the top who hire and fire the CEO) could perhaps benefit from humanities-reading, I don't think that execs in general should be commanded to "realize that life is more important than the production/consumption rat-wheel." It's that rat-wheel that enables us to get things like medicine, computers, cars, food...

A final thought is something I haven't made my mind up about quite yet. To what extent should people in the humanities, or, really, people in general - such as voting citizens - be required to have some education in scientific or engineering decision-making?


Flavia said...


I wonder sometimes how much of our (well, I'll say "my," since you're the engineer/inventor/entrepreneur around here) perception of the talents, strengths, and interests of humaninites majors vs. techy types is skewed by having gone to INRU. My friends who majored in STEM fields have always been creative not just in their own fields, but also outside of them--great writers and thinkers with strong interests in literature and the arts. Whereas, yeah: your basic humanities major, even a very smart and talented one, tends to be embarrassingly scientifically illiterate.

But all my friends in STEM fields are (ahem) people likely to be MY FRIENDS. And they chose to go to schools with strong liberal arts programs, and most of them are now academics or doing creative research, so maybe that's not a representative sample.

And/but while I can't speak to the actual educational background of execs, I know, from the college-educational side of things, that students (or at least students at institutions like RU) do not assume that a humanities major is appropriate for someone who wants to succeed in business. They assume that business is the right degree. So from that perspective, I welcome an opinion piece like this one.

I'm not trying to dissuade students with quant skills from going into the sciences (though I've been known to try to convince them to double-major or to minor in the humanities). But students who don't have quant skills often major in things like pharmacology or health sciences or accounting, thinking that those are "practical" majors. And that, I think, is a real shame--the humanities teach skills that are more useful and versatile in the long run.

G-Fav said...

Ah, okay. So many schools (like RU) have some sort of "business major" for undergrads, whereas the schools I'm more familiar with don't. It's a grad degree.

Yeah, I'm with you. Even in my family... my father wanted to be an English major, but my grandfather convinced him to get some business skills. So he double-majored in English and Accounting, and then took over the family construction company. And this was at a seminary.

Well, I digress!


Azulao said...

So, okay, take the future board members and shareholder then, and forcing them to realize that life is more than production/consumption ratwheel. The problem with focusing only on the bottom line is that you externalize a sh*tload of costs that come back to bite you later.

G-fav, I truly hope that we humans can find a way, one of these days, to get food, medicine, shelter, and even computers WITHOUT the rat wheel. Because if we can't, we're screwed silly. I do not believe this problem will be solved entirely by technical fixes; it will require a paradigm shift. For that, we ALL need what the humanities teach.

I am firmly on the "everyone should learn science" side, so I'm pretty equal opportunity in my insistence that well-rounded-citizens are the ones who add the most value to a society.

G-Fav said...

Hi, people-of-letters,

I suspect we've moved on from this article. Regardless I'm still wondering if it's really engineering or science that the general public ought to have more exposure to. (I mean, heck, there are lots of kinds of science! Which one? And what kind of engineering is best to learn: bridge-building, chip-designing, or chemical process-making?)

At risk of betraying my own engineering-kind, when I entered my 30s I realized that the most talented inventive engineers often start life in mathematics. Not the kind of math that AP students eventually hit in high school (e.g. calculus), but the stuff a few steps beyond: linear algebra, vector calculus, and abstract algebra with its rings and fields and scary-sounding words like "Abelian."

I know and appreciate that there are many "ways of thought" in the world, and I guess I'm most in touch with the quantitative ones, since I usually scratch my head when I hear y'alls talking about gender roles and Biblical allusions and all. But if we limit our scope here to the sciences, I think that higher mathematics offers the deepest dive into what I call "thought-shapes," which are the most primitive, atomic tools in one's logical toolbox.

Like what? (And, Flavia, I honestly have NO IDEA why you're always my target for these types of discussions, e.g. the whole "turn your shower knob slowly else you'll bounce back and forth from freezing to boiling, because, after all, a delay in a feedback loop causes oscillations...")

Well, when you get past high school math you are introduced to a bunch of funky concepts that (1) cause you to reconsider your basic assumptions, even about arithmetic, and (2) you learn new perspectives on common problems, the perspectives having been thought-up around 1750 and which still drive most scientific analysis today.


G-Fav said...

I bet I put you to sleep already, but here are a few examples. Linear algebra - which, really, doesn't have ANY prerequisites beyond basic algebra - probably turned my brain on-end most of all, second only to abstract algebra, which I can't seem to hack. Linear algebra gets you used to thinking beyond three dimensions, showing you that some routine manipulations of numbers will let you fool around with 6-D as easily as 3. It teaches you the "thought shape" called projection, which is the any-dimension equivalent to an object casting a shadow. You probably don't spend much time wondering how a 3-D tree casts a 2-D shadow. But 2-D things can cast 1-D shadows, which, if you think about it, is exactly what our high school physics teachers had us do when we resolved the motion of a cannon ball into its x and y components.

Linear algebra is also pretty because it teaches us about something called basis vectors, which is sort of like choosing what orientation you'll hold your ruler in when you choose to measure something, and whether you're in inches or centimeters.

The most powerful "thought shape" that engineering students pick up is called Fourier Analysis, or thinking in frequency-space. This is useful in letting you figure out if what looks like a complicated series of events is actually a composite of numerous periodic events. It's the mathematical de-tangler. Your wall calendar is an example. You can consider it as holding hundreds of events in 365 buckets, or you could consider it as a handful of events each of which happens with a given "start date" and "repeat frequency."

I hope I'm not coming off like someone who just wants to hear himself talk (though I do). It's that I think there are some ways in which people in general might be able to think more carefully, or more efficiently, if they are able to hack through just a few more math courses than usual.

Post-amble: yes, yes, I realize I'm focusing on numbers here and there's more to life on that. But there's a beauty and a strict utility to be gotten from just a few math classes, which gives us the tools to think (about engineering problems at least) with greater clarity. On the flip side, I should have taken (eg) FAR more English classes at INRU than just one; I should start reading the books on what's-his-name's Canon; I should have a clue about world history.