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How to avoid a bonfire of the humanities

How to avoid a bonfire of the humanities
Illustration by Noah Woods
by Michael S. Malone '75, MBA '77 |
“English majors are exactly the people I'm looking for,” one successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur recently told me.

A half-century ago in his famous “Two Cultures” speech, C.P. Snow defined the growing rift between the world of scientists (including, increasingly, the commercial world) and that of literary intellectuals (including, increasingly, the humanities). It’s hard to imagine the sciences and the humanities ever having been united in common cause. But that day may come again soon.

En garde!

Michael S. Malone long ago earned a reputation as the chronicler of Silicon Valley: attuned to what makes the engine of entrepreneurship hum, understanding what it is in the DNA of the place that makes it different. With The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory (St. Martin’s, 2012), the Valley ultimately figures into the picture of how we preserve and share what we know, over space and time. But that’s only in the last few pages. With a title that nods to Cicero (who describes memory as the “guardian of all things”), Malone’s sweeping study reaches across 10,000 years of human history, exploring memory as symbol, metaphor, recording—and as existence itself.

Early on, Malone notes, “Whether you believe in a divine spark, a network effect emerging from those billions of neurons, or some kind of quantum phenomenon taking place in carbon nanotubes inside those neurons, the fact that consciousness arose at the same time and resides in the same realm as language suggests something more than a casual relationship. In fact, the best explanation for the rise of human consciousness may come from the opening line of the Bible: In the beginning was the Word.”

Also near the beginning—as well as in our age—is the image, from cave paintings to digital video. Along the way, Malone luxuriates in exploring the inspiration and creation of medieval bestiaries, and he assesses, “The epistemology that underlies the bestiaries is as complex as any modern scientific taxonomy, and the metaphysics of the world it portrays are as subtle, irrational, and counterintuitive as anything found in string theory or particle physics.”

At a time when we peer into a future that possibly includes memory implants and life recording, Malone also warns of the darkness that comes with forgetting: “What is easily erased can usually be easily erased forever.” SBS

Today, the “two cultures” not only rarely speak to one another, but also increasingly, as their languages and world views diverge, are unable to do so. They seem to interact only when science churns up in its wake some new technological phenomenon—personal computing, the Internet, bioengineering—that revolutionizes society and human interaction and forces the humanities to respond with a whole new set of theories and explanations.

Not surprising, as science has grown to dominate modern society, the humanities have withered into increasing irrelevancy. For them to imagine that they have anything approaching the significance or influence of the sciences smacks of a kind of sad, last-ditch desperation. 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 of the chips on the table.

All of this may seem like a sideshow—in our digital age the humanities will limp along as science consolidates its triumph. There is, after all, a distinct trajectory to industries and disciplines that are about to be annihilated by technology. Typically, those insular worlds operate along with misplaced confidence. They expect an industry evolution; they fail to recognize that they are facing a revolution—and if they don’t utterly transform themselves, right now, it will destroy them. But of course, they never do.

I watched this happen in almost every tech industry, and now it is spreading to almost every other industry and profession. Medicine, education, governance, the military, and my own profession of journalism. And so I found myself earlier this year talking with the head of the English department at Santa Clara. The department’s tenured faculty had been reduced to just a handful of professors, many nearing retirement; the rest of the staff was mostly part-time adjunct lecturers. And the students? Little more than half the number of majors of just a decade earlier. I had seen this before.

I asked him: How bad is it? “It’s pretty bad,” he said. “And this economy is only making it worse. There are parents now who tell their kids they will only pay tuition for a business, engineering, or science degree.”

Aversion to risk, lack of research money, dwindling market share, a declining talent pool. That is how mature industries die; perhaps it is the same story with aging fields of thought. But hope for the humanities may be on the horizon, coming from an unlikely source: Silicon Valley.
 

Bring on the storytellers

A few months back I invited a friend to speak in front of my professional writing class. Santosh Jayaram is the quintessential Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur: tech-savvy, empirical, ferociously competitive, and a veteran of Google, Twitter, and a new startup, Dabble. Afraid that he would simply run over my writing students, telling them to switch majors before it was too late, I asked him not to crush the kids’ hopes any more than they already were.

Home, sweet homestead

Where are you from? In answering that question for himself, Michael S. Malone offers, “This is the world, and at its very epicenter, where I grew up: mad optimism, an acceptance of failure, and a complete historic amnesia. The secret to success in Silicon Valley—and increasingly the entire electronics world—is to always assume you are going to win and to never entrust your fate to anyone.”

He writes this in a book that is very much about recovering history. Charlie’s Place: The Saga of an American Frontier Homestead (History Publishing Company, 2012) is a family tale that begins against the backdrop of the 19th-century American West. Some characters seem sprung from Victorian melodrama (evil stepfather, blushing bride, the amiable hired hand); there is murder and subterfuge. In spinning out the saga of the eponymous homestead, Malone tells the story of the Oklahoma land rush and the closing of the American frontier: Malone’s great-grandfather, Charlie Hasbrook, stakes his claim, builds his dugout, raises his family and a house and a barn that’s a thing of true beauty—and then, in the Great Depression, has it snookered out from under him. But Malone’s mother, who vowed she would see the farm returned to the family one day, lives to see the drama arc toward a much happier ending.

Completing Malone’s literary trifecta for the past year is Four Percent: The Story of Uncommon Youth in a Century of American Life (Windrush, 2012). Written to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of Eagle Scouts, this e-book serves up a detailed history of the Boy Scouts and takes readers on journeys (with Eagle Scouts, naturally) to Antarctica and the Moon. Malone also recaps the remarkable 21st-century contributions by young men through Eagle Scout Service Projects—working for the common good from Alabama to Zambia. SBS

Santosh said, “Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” He explained: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up, and getting into full production.

These days, he said, everything has been turned upside down. Most products now are virtual, such as iPhone apps. You don’t build them so much as construct them from chunks of existing software code—and that work can be contracted out to hungry teams of programmers anywhere in the world who can do it in a couple of weeks.

But to get to that point, he said, you must spend a year searching for that one undeveloped niche that you can capture. And you must also use that time to find angel or venture investment, establish strategic partners, convince talented people to take the risk and join your firm, explain your product to code writers and designers, and, most of all, begin to market to prospective major customers. And you have to do all of that without an actual product.

“And how do you do that?” Santosh asked. “You tell stories.” Stories, he said, about your product and how it will be used that are so vivid that your potential stakeholders imagine it already exists and is already part of their daily lives. Almost anything you can imagine you can now build, said Santosh, so the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors,” he said.

Asked once what made his company special, Steve Jobs replied: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

Rebuild the shattered bridge

Could the humanities rebuild the shattered bridge between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” and find a place at the heart of the modern world’s virtual institutions? We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and, most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first-century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith.

The demand is there, but the question is whether the traditional humanities can furnish the supply. If they can’t or won’t, they will continue to wither away. But surely there are risk takers out there in those English and classics departments, ready to leap on this opportunity. They’d better hurry, because the other culture won’t wait.

 

This essay originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It is based on Michael S. Malone's speech at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University on Oct. 18, 2012.

 

James Canales '80 said on Feb 27, 2013

I never thought CP Snow had it right and I think history supports that view. The "scientists" brought us the LTCM crisis, the tech bubble, and the Great Financial Crisis through misguided financial engineering and "mathematical" certainty.

In over 30 years of doing business in manufacturing, farm and construction equipment distribution, and finance, I have never hired an undergraduate business major or a scientist. I have always preferred humanities majors who can write a complete, grammatically correct sentence that readers can comprehend. I particularly prefer economics (classic, not econometrics), political science, and history majors as they understand that the world is not as simple as the United States or the community in which they grew up and matured.

My view was influenced by Father Rewak, who, as President of Santa Clara in the late 1970s, taught a poetry class for engineers. Also by an experience I had in the mid-1980s at a Stanford summer college program on leadership. There, I met the CFO of Apple at the time, who was an English major as an undergraduate. Steve Jobs put his ideas into practice.

It would be helpful to the economy if more firms had the view Malone presents in his article and put that view to practice. Any time my friends ask me what their kids should major in as undergraduates, I tell them Arts and Humanities! An undergraduate education should be about learning to think, challenging ideas, developing independent thoughts, and being able to communicate through story telling, both verbally and in writing. If parents want their children to get a job and a life they will love, that is what they should encourage them to do.

Rene Clabaugh M.S. '05 said on Mar 1, 2013

"Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been." —Albert Einstein

Scientists and engineers need help from others to stay in the fold of humanity. Those versed in humanities, with their creativity, art, and eloquence, can and should point the way forward for those harnessed to the engine of technology. Who else is going to do it? An MBA can miss entirely the monetary value of an organization or fail outright in understanding what Win-Win means. Enter mass layoffs rather than spinoffs.

Hello? Where is the vision? Where is the setting of goals worthy of people, worthy of the people at hand in the organization?

Engineers can go on forever on autopilot: optimizing, optimizing, adding features whether useful or not. Science, like software engineering, requires a total personal commitment as there is no limit to the amount of intellect required to address any particular challenge.

In my family, with a house full of humanities majors, I jump for joy seeing articles like this. I am an engineer. Yes, the technology world needs people who can help guide the work, who can inspire, who can tell the story of why a product needs to be done, not just what the product does, not just the profit, not just the advancement of science. This approach with humanities may need to take the same entrepreneurial path taken to launch personal computing—doing it from the garage.

Can a humanities major lead well enough from their personal blog? Can they work hard to create relevance and fully embarrass compensation out of so many companies? Even though there are few jobs at tech companies today? Get ready, even engineers are needing to publish personally or remain out of work indefinitely. Enter humanities here. Please don't miss the opportunity for teamwork.

Elspeth Rossetti '75, MA '96 said on Mar 1, 2013

The problem is not that the humanities don't have a contribution to make to the tech industry but, rather, that those who study the humanities often don't see how they can contribute to that industry.

The challenge we often have at the SCU Career Center is educating the English major that their Jane Austen monographs and deconstructions of The Tempest arm them with a unique set of transferable skills. Although they may not be discussing the death of the novel over the virtual watercooler at Google (Chief Legal Officer David Drummond '85 was an SCU history major), the skills they have acquired and honed in the classroom are valuable in the workplace.

Careful analysis of the motivations of a character in literature, the ability to articulate thoughts and persuade others of your ideas and convictions, the creativity and imagination inherent in writing or interpreting poetry—all of these require traits that employers value. Data from LinkedIn (co-founder Reid Hoffman was a philosophy major) show us that Google and Apple (co-founder Steve Jobs, was inspired by a calligraphy class) hire more of our alumni into non-technical than technical positions; in fact, 54% of SCU alumni at Apple are in non-technical positions. Employers hire a person, not a major.

Michael J. Piellusch MS '05 said on Mar 4, 2013

I feel compelled to comment on this discussion thread. I studied Liberal Arts in the days when teaching seemed to be the only available career for the English, history, or philosophy major. Once I obtained my B.A. degree in English, I continued my literary studies with an M.A. degree in English.

In between the two English degrees, I picked up a math minor so I could teach English and math in secondary school. This combination seemed to be an on-demand duo, as several schools seemed to need the English-Math combination to round out their class schedules.

Looking for a slightly higher salary and the privilege of working with adults, I obtained a Silicon Valley job as a technical editor. Wanting to make the transition to technical writing, I picked up an MBA in data systems and then an M.S. in software engineering. Continuing along the lifelong learning path, I enrolled in the SCU Engineering Management and earned my second M.S. degree in 2005. Encouraged by one professor to work on my doctorate, I completed my doctoral studies last year (2011). I am still working as a technical writer and recently as an adjunct professor.

I don't believe everyone needs enough degrees to "choke a horse," as the saying goes, but technical writing is a great career for an English major with a large dose of computer savvy. A few degrees or certificates certainly help the resume appearance, but the proof of the writing is in the ability to work hard, meet schedules, and produce quality work. As one recent blog posed the question: Where are all the young technical writers?

I am solidly of the baby boomer generation, but many of my fellow technical writers are of the same chronological ilk (wandering there way toward retirement). Do not despair if you like to dot your I's and cross your T's; the world needs people who can write for print and online media. Where have all the English majors gone? Hopefully they have gone back to school for Java 101 and another cup of Joe to spill on a document due yesterday.

Carole K. Meagher MBA '98 said on Mar 9, 2013

Trying to imagine Facebook and Google without an elegantly designed user interface (art majors!) or content worth searching or sharing (music, political science, psychology, etc.)

Nope. Can't do it.

Kevin said on Mar 31, 2013

Technology is indispensable, and Malone sullies all clear-headed advocates for and agents of technological advancement with this piece of self-indulgent tripe. As though technological phenomena and their effects on humanity are self-evidently explicable. As though the role of those who critically examine human beings and how they exist in our ever-changing world is to serve as optional adjunct to the manufacturers of semiconductors, as an embellishment on the genuinely valuable work of the scientist.

Malone's weak thesis that the humanities are begrudgingly useful--his professed angle, that he's simply, generously attempting to rescue the pitiful humanities from themselves; his supposed desire to "rebuild the shattered bridge"—is undone by his smug, self-congratulatory condescension and his ignorance toward what the humanities actually are and do. (Not to mention his ignorance, or, more generously, his blithe dismissal, of how the infrastructure of the contemporary university—how all of Western education—came to be in the first place.) Sadly, this brand of self-indulgent myopia is all too common here in Silicon Valley. Thankfully, it has not won the day.

Genevieve Sedlack Waller '90 said on Apr 18, 2013

As an SCU English alumna and former print journalist who is now a professional oral storyteller, I read the excerpt of Michael S. Malone’s essay with great interest. Since I began sharing and teaching the art of oral storytelling just a few years ago, I have witnessed the appeal of this ages-old tradition gain new traction among a variety of audiences, including the scientific and commercial worlds Malone mentions.

As I tell my professional clients and students who are striving to better their careers and communication skills: We are all storytellers all the time, and we don’t have to look very far or listen very hard to discover the benefits of excellent stories. Great stories change us. They provoke. They make us think. They give us context. They provide hope and vision, impart valuable lessons, help us discover new paths, push us in new directions, convince us to commit to new behaviors, strengthen our resolve to meet our goals. Effective, valuable stories not only help us grow and learn, but help us better understand our lives, our work, our age, and each other. The same can be said of a humanities-focused education.

After reading Mr. Malone’s excerpt, I look forward to the ongoing relationships now developing for 21st century storytellers, and I am hopeful that studies in the humanities experience a well-earned revival of their own for the value they bring to society and the workplace.

Genevieve Sedlack Waller '90
Founder, Crooked Door Storytelling, LLC
Chicago

Geoffrey Rodgers, MBA '93 said on May 23, 2013

I read Mr. Malone's story with great anticipation. I have a business degree from a State school here in California and earned my MBA at SCU. I was looking for evidence that Silicon Valley companies were changing the way they recruited since I "broke in" to high technology twenty years ago.

At that time, I had a very difficult time finding a sales career with a business undergraduate degree. Technical degrees were a minimum requirement, and it took me a while to break in to the industry. Sadly, Mr. Malone's essay falls short of offering any tangible evidence that things have changed. I don't think his singular example is a trend. In my estimation, companies still look for candidates with technical backgrounds. Right or wrong, they feel that, armed with a strong technical foundation, new hires can learn the "storytelling" skills Mr. Malone mentioned.

Don't get me wrong, I take no issue with Liberal Arts degrees. I graduated college with a minor in English, and my son is contemplating a degree in Political Science. But I do believe that Liberal Arts majors need to understand that they will be competing against peers with technical degrees for positions in high technology, and this can be a difficult challenge.

Winter 2014

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