Oh, the Humanities

Humanity is the key that will open the door to our future.

Reading (La Lecture) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1891 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)

“Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” — Will Durant, 1926


There's so much happening in the news every day, it's difficult to keep up. It feels as if we're caught in a current and are fighting it with every swipe of the phone, swimming against a digital riptide while powered only with thumbs to propel us through the water.

It's exhausting.

There's a temptation to undertake a digital detox, but sometimes, it's just not an option. Leaders are expected to make sense of it all—to parse through all of the facts flying at them, and to do so, they need to put the pieces together using perception and imagination to create insights and informed decisions.

Perception, imagination and insights come from years of experience on the job, but they also come from being widely read and learning how to think critically. These are attributes that are a consequence of an education in the humanities.

In the age of the rise of STEM education, philosophizing about the humanities might seem a counterintuitive. As with all of my essays, I have a point—one that will be explained by way of some of the great thinkers of the past (and present).


A Virginia Vision

When Thomas Jefferson envisioned the University of Virginia in 1818, he set out with some guiding principles in his Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia. He stressed ideals bound by honor and duty, of enlightenment, and the greater good.

These included:

  • To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business.

  • To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts, and accounts in writing.

  • To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties.

  • To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.

  • And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

He went on to prescribe various branches of higher education, such as government and civics, agriculture, mathematics, manufacturing, the arts, and more. In summing up, Jefferson advocated that education should advance "the prosperity, the power, and the happiness of a nation."

If you read the full excerpt of the Report, there's a subtle shift from those ideals related to morals and enlightenment and those that are more practical in nature. As a classically-educated man of his time, he understood the importance of the care and feeding of the mind, but it was no less important that the care and feeding of one's own family—something that results from "transaction of his own business" and with any luck, ends in "prosperity."

As America developed from an awkward agrarian youth to a full adult of the Industrial Age, the caretakers of education evolved from the bookish types to industrialists and men of a practical nature, who knew how to measure output and productivity. And before we knew it, higher education became not only practical, but essential for upward mobility.


"Students don’t go to school to acquire the wisdom of Solomon. They go to school to acquire a cash value and improve their lot, to pick up the keys to the kingdom stocked with the treasures to be found in a BMW showroom or an Arizona golf resort." — Lewis H. Lapham, 2008


That's not to say that business and education are separate concepts; they sail on the same ocean that is the almighty dollar. Indeed, the business of higher education is struggling, as the tempest of COVID-19 is rocking already precarious ecosystem, ready to dash its ships upon the shoals.

When students venture into the "real world," as it's so often called from the halls of the academy, they often leave behind what they've gained from university settings. Degrees in hand after a sunny spring commencement ceremony, they accept job offers and plunge headlong into a new environment, eagerly learning a trade—a trade, odds are, that their liberal arts institutions or humanities degrees have not prepared them.

Or have they?

Dust Off Your Shakespeare

At first blush, Plato doesn't seem to be of much use in computer programming; Hannibal may have crossed the Alps on elephants, but he can't navigate an algorithm for an autonomous vehicle; and Abraham Lincoln thought that the world would little note nor long remember what he said, but can he help write ad copy?

Ralph Waldo Emerson bridged the theoretical and the practical in "The American Scholar," a speech he gave to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa in 1837, in which he discerned the difference between the "Man Thinking" and the bookworm:

"Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books…Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution."

He of course meant not that these are two separate states of being (humans are almost never entirely one thing or another—we're complex that way), but that if we apply what we've come to learn on the printed page to our own experiences, we can create new and better opportunities for ourselves.

In fact, Emerson plainly stated the interplay between our work lives and our education: "When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read become luminous with manifold allusion."


"Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last." — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1911


The Spacious Country of the Mind

As I select a topic to write about each week (my labor and invention), I find myself inspired as I read various sources—books, articles, newsletters, etc. Current events are filtered through this topical lens, and everything takes more meaning.

I've made no secret that one of my regular resources is Lapham's Quarterly, a publication that in each issue captures a wealth of history and knowledge, which Will and Ariel Durant called "a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing." (The Lessons of History)

But what can such figures of the past teach us about digital communications, leadership in the age of a COVID-19, or the security concerns of an enterprise SaaS purchase? What good are history, literature and philosophy when engineers are trying to complete their code?

Just over a decade ago, Lewis Lapham noted that he regularly came across academic journals and alumni magazines with "articles that might as well be entitled 'What In God's Name Are the Humanities, and Why Are They of Any Use to Us Here in the Bright Blue Technological Wonder of the Twenty-First Century?'"

Technology has advanced well beyond its capabilities in Mr. Lapham's observation in 2008. But the need for humanities has not. Since then, we've seen the fine-tuning of artificial intelligence, the creation of the gig economy, and the rise of Facebook's power. As a result, we've seen unconscious built-in biases in A.I., a feudal class system made up of taxi-driving serfs, and a global communications platform that puts the very idea of democracy at risk led by a CEO who has all the power of a dictator.


"Like the sorcerer's apprentice, our technologists produce continuously improved means toward increasingly ill-defined ends; we have acquired a great many new weapons and information systems, but we don't know at what or at whom to point the digital enhancements." — Lewis H. Lapham, 2008


When you develop a business primarily through the lens of engineering, algorithms and technology, and fail to properly account for human behavior as discernible by historic events and trends, this is what happens.

Enjoy those computer science degrees while you have them, Mark Cuban says. Because with the rise of A.I., the ability to program will be quickly assumed by machines. Longer term, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills will be more valued because these are things that are bound by emotions and empathy. He even thinks that in 10 years, a philosophy degree will be worth more than a computer science degree.

The humanities give us an opportunity to apply perspective and ethics to the field of technology. To not only game out the potential scenarios, but to ask and answer the hows and whys before those scenarios even exist.

Voltaire once asked, "Is there any one so wise as to learn by the experience of others?" While no one has lived exactly as any one of us will, we can turn to the stories from those statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers from history and go from bookworms to Humans Thinking.

Our heritage is the key to our humanity.


Timely: Present Tense

"The erroneous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age, since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader's way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful matter, peradventure interspersed." — Edgar Allan Poe, 1844

In the world of higher education, who will thrive, who will survive, and who will struggle? Scott Galloway makes an analysis, and as usual, some bold predictions. (No Mercy / No Malice)

Liberal arts students face a daunting yet rich opportunity if they're taking classes from home during the pandemic: Having the chance to be useful — not to their families, but to the world — is a luxury at this moment. Students ought to embrace it. They may be astonished by what they find. (The New York Times)

Humanities degrees have been the butt of jokes and have even been devalued. But that's about to change. There's nothing like a humanities degree that provides "soft" skills, such as the ability to communicate and get along with people, and understand what’s on other people’s minds. (BBC)


Timeless: For the Curious Mind

"Education has become a prisoner of contemporaneity. It is the past, not the dizzy present, that is the best door to the future." — Camille Paglia, 1992

The framework of American education holds fast to the ardent but mistaken belief that education is a commodity, the stuff that one pours into empty vessels: Playing With Fire. (Lapham's Quarterly)

How Harvard's Star Computer Science Professor Built a Distance Learning Empire. (The New Yorker)


Nicholas Basbanes reflects on A Gentle Madness, his seminal book on book collectors and collecting, 25 years after its first publication. (Fine Books Magazine)


Recommended Listening / Reading

"I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained." — Walt Disney

🎧 The Tech Humanist is a manifesto, a book, a show, a podcast, a blog, and more. It’s a movement, really. Founded by Kate O’Neill, this community is about channeling the best of our human selves to develop the best technological solutions for all of us. The Tech Humanist Show is a multi-media-format program exploring how data and technology shape the human experience.

📘 The Lessons of History is the result of a lifetime of research from Pulitzer Prize–winning historians Will and Ariel Durant. With their accessible compendium of philosophy and social progress, the Durants take us on a journey through history, exploring the possibilities and limitations of humanity over time. Juxtaposing the great lives, ideas, and accomplishments with cycles of war and conquest, the Durants reveal the towering themes of history and give meaning to our own.


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