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Calling the humanities home

Commerce and the humanities should be partners, not opponents. Flickr

If we talk of ‘two cultures’ today, it’s not the divide between arts and sciences that we should have in mind.

The crucial issue is the gulf between commerce and higher education - especially between business and the humanities.

I don’t think that much of the rancour that so annoyed English physicist and novelist Charles Percy Snow circa 1960, still exists. There is something really quite touching about his description of a Shakespeare scholar snubbing a physicist after dinner in a Cambridge college. It sounds like a report from another world.

But another version of the two cultures does exist, and it is even more important. The ways in which humanities people think of business and the way some business people think of the humanities puts Snow’s common room bickering in the shade.

Yet the relationship between the humanities and commerce is one of the most important in our civilisation. They are made for one another. Like star-crossed lovers they find themselves getting furious, squabbling or brushing past one another unawares in the night.

When Michael Andrew talks about higher education, Universities should pay a lot of attention. Mr Andrew is the Chairman of KPMG – ‘the major customer’ of the sector, taking on 750 Australian graduates last year.

He’s also the chair of the education taskforce set up by the Business Council of Australia (BCA). And last week he put forward some suggestions about how to improve higher education.

He wants to see our universities educate people as leaders, as good communicators and as fruitful collaborators. It’s really quite a remarkable demand and one that universities should welcome with open arms.

Mr Andrew is giving public voice to an issue that has been bubbling away for some time. Commerce needs people who can think independently, who have imagination, who can wonder about the bigger picture, who can articulate their doubts in a constructive manner.

Of course we need engineers and vocationally trained students. But it is wrong to suppose that is a philistine agenda. Because ‘vocational training’ for the 21st century isn’t a narrow idea.

It’s an intriguing agenda. Leadership,flair for communication and an aptitude for collaboration are qualities of mind and character that cannot be easily trained or measured. They grow out of a wide range of subordinate abilities.

A good communicator – for instance – needs to be self-critical; they need to worry that they aren’t making enough sense; they need to be confident enough to know when they don’t know. Leadership involves independence of mind: the capacity to take responsibility but also to turn against expectations and strike out on your own.

Mr Andrew calls for an education in problem-solving; he wants to see more of what used to be called the ‘generalist’. That is, the person who can move intelligently from one context to another, who isn’t imprisoned in a specialist silo. It is wonderful – really significant and important – that this message is coming from the very heart of the business community.

What this really means is that the BCA is calling the humanities home. It is inviting higher education to its biggest and most central task: to cultivate the minds and characters of its students. This is the sacred soil of the humanities. Their classic ground is not the cloister, or its modern equivalent, the ivory tower.

The humanities should want to be where the action is. Think of how Aristotle, Cicero, Goethe, George Eliot or Tolstoy would respond to the BCA. In their view, a truly humane and broad education should equip you to thrive in the world in which you live; it should help you to contribute fully to your society and enable you to take up a constructive attitude towards its betterment. They would be eager for collaboration.

The key claim has always been that paying intelligent attention to the past, to great literature, to philosophy and art equips a person to deal better with life. These disciplines should inculcate habits of mind and qualities of thought that are of individual and collective benefit. The humanities have tended, however, just to hope for the best.

Learn Latin poetry and – along the way – you will gain an enquiring mind, a helpful perspective on life and an ability to deal appropriately with intractable problems.

But why not put the goal first and then adapt the means? What we really care about is getting these qualities of mind. So, let’s keep on asking how poetry (or philosophy, or history) can help us acquire them as effectively as possible.

The sticking point might seem to be research. But scholarship is not the goal of education; it is a support mechanism. It’s a matter of means and ends. Why study, say, the philosophy of Hegel? You could be interested in the history of ideas – what did intellectuals in early 19th century Germany think about? You could ask about Hegel’s influence: how did his ideas feed into the work of Marx? How did he influence art history?

But still, keep on pressing: why is it good to know these things? Well, because he is a source of insight into the problems and difficulties that we currently face and he helps us think now. So, ultimately, the argument comes back to present benefit.

We’ve tended to think that the really hard questions are the scholarly ones: what did Hegel actually claim; was he right? And that the question of his relevance or value to us now is of secondary significance; comparatively easier. Pure research is what the top-flight academics do. Actually, it more serious and more difficult to ask the practical question.

The crucial task of civilisation is to enable a society to achieve material and spiritual prosperity at the same time. There’s no point in having magnificent values if you can’t do anything about them; and there’s no point in having great material success unless you deploy it in fine ways.

Commerce is the engine of material prosperity. It is the dominant force in the world. Anyone who cares about noble values should be desperately asking how these can be integrated with commerce. This is a great historical moment.

Some of the leading voices in the corporate world are saying we need to get wiser, more articulate, more imaginative, more sociable; we need a bigger perspective and we need to get better at brining all those qualities into the big practical tasks of our times. Commerce is saying this.

We no longer live in the age of Information. Of course we are awash with information. But information is cheap and access is easy. The definitive issue is: what qualities of mind and character do we need?

What ‘virtues’ (as Aristotle would call them) do we need to acquire if we are to live well and where can we find them? This is a question around which business and the Humanities can and should unite.

John Armstrong will be a guest speaker at Ways of seeing: reforming the humanities at the University of Sydney on Thursday, April 7.

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