Bridging the Divide Between Science and the Humanities

The Wall Street Journal today carries an adaptation of a speech I delivered last week at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University, considering the future of the humanities in an era where science seems to be king. The piece itself is behind the paywall, but here’s an unedited excerpt from the original speech, which illustrates my core point — that all hope is not necessarily lost for the humanities:

I had invited a friend of mine down to speak in front of my university class in professional writing.  Santosh Jayaram is a very interesting guy: raised in India, he came to the  United States with just a few dollars in his pocket. Five years later, he was earning a healthy living as an electronics salesman in Silicon Valley. But that wasn’t enough for Santosh. He decided he wanted to earn an MBA from Oxford’s Said School. It took him three tries before he was accepted, but two years later he graduated in the top ten of his class. Returning to the States, Santosh was hired by Google to manage its crown jewel:  its search engine team. He then moved to the young Twitter, where he served as the de facto chief operating officer. By the time he came to talk to my class, he was just 34 years old, and had lined up millions of dollars of venture capital money for Dabble, his new social networking company.

In other words, Santosh is the quintessential Silicon Valley high tech entrepreneur: tech savvy, results oriented, ferociously competitive, and a master at decoding a balance sheet. And I was afraid that he would simply run over my students, remind them of their bad educational decisions, and warn them to change the trajectory of their lives before it was too late. So, before we entered the classroom, I took Santosh aside and asked him to be diplomatic, to let my students down easy. They are mostly fourth year English honors students, I told him. They have few job prospects anyway, but now it’s even worse in this miserable economy. Their friends and families consider their degrees a joke, and even they have begun to wonder if they’ve made a terrible mistake. Try not to crush their hopes any more than they are, I told him. Give them hope that they might be able to find jobs in a start-up like Dabble.

“Are you kidding?,” Santosh replied. “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for. If I’ve learned anything in the last couple years it is that nature of business creation has changed in fundamental ways. Let me explain. 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 somewhere else in the world. And it can all be done in just a few weeks. But you can’t even get to that point until you’ve spent as much as a year cutting through all of the noise and global competition to find that one undeveloped niche you can capture.”

“And that’s just part of it,” Santosh continued, “because during that year you have 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 thatwithout an actual product.”

“And how do you do that?” Santosh asked. “You tell stories. You have to tell all of your current and potential stakeholders a story about your product and how it will be used that is so real, and so vivid, that they imagine it already exists and that they have incorporated it into their daily lives.” “Almost anything you can imagine you can build,” said Santosh, “so, while almost no one was looking, the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do now, to story-telling, for which only a few people these days have real talent.  And that’s why I want to meet your English majors.”

  1. David Williamson

    The only problem with this argument is that there are many more English majors flipping burgers than there are Math and Science majors.

    I saw this with my kids (in England) – my son was Math-oriented and started his career relatively easily. My daughter was English oriented and took several years to get her career underway – in many job interviews she was up against literally thousands of competitors.

    Actually, ideally, employers want both – there are so many good candidates that they can afford to be choosy.

  2. Valiuth

    Story telling? I guess that is how Enron made its money too. Come on. This just makes me think MBAs are even bigger BSers than before.

  3. Capt. Aubrey

    I read your essay with relish this morning. As an English major who stumbled into the financial services industry 30 years ago I find it heartening. I also just left a lunch meeting where an alumnus of my college 5 years my senior told our group a story of how he helped save a very large Wall St firm from ruin in the early 90s and in essense the reason for his success was having learned to adhere to an honor code that taught him to put right conduct ahead of making money. It is sad that when I hear the term liberal education I think about what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things” whereas most people associate the term with victim’s studies, academic decadence and moral relativism.

  4. Nick Stuart

    If the English major involves reading things worth reading, and learning how to write with a clear voice people want to read, it can be worthwhile.

    If it involves deconstructing crap that wasn’t worth constructing in the first place, and tweeting about it, then it isn’t.

    Ditto Liberal Arts. A REAL Liberal Arts degree holder who’s read REAL works of literature and has a REAL basic understanding of the sciences (like you would get from a REAL academich high school education 30 years ago) has REAL value. If they spent 4 years hooking up and playing beer pong, probably not.

    But where besides Hillsdale and a few other lonely outposts of Western Civilization are such degrees to be had?

    Finally, I’m reminded of the Damon Runyon quote:  “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. But that is the way to bet.” Probably safer to go with math or science, or a tech school education if you want.

  5. Pseudodionysius

    One caution:

    When CS Lewis finished up at Oxford “English” wasn’t even considered to be a course of study: one studied the Classics and the English specialists were fellows like Tolkien. I don’t disagree with the overall thrust of the thinking, but I’d want an English major with a solid grounding in history, and the elements of classical rhetorical tropes.

    After all, there’s a reason that Robert McKee is as successful as he is selling a book and 4 day class called Story. Lots of those folks already have English degrees.

  6. SParker

    A flaw in this is the idea that very many English majors are any damned good at storytelling, basic analysis, or clear expression.    As one, I look at it like this:  would I have needed to get a CS degree in addition to somehow make a living if I had an imagination worth the powder to blow it to hell?

    Another flaw is that an imagination and the ability to communicate its fruits is lacking on the science/engineering side of the divide.  My experience is that they’re  more common there. I’m not sure that Physics lab is any worse a place to pick them up than a seminar on Paradise Lost.  He said looking back in ruth.

  7. flownover

    And that is why Obama convinced me to vote for Romney, because he is such a good ” bulls***ter ” !

  8. Chris Johnson

    Aurelius, I take your point about what I consider to be the ephemeral nature of the social geegaws, but consider:

    How much lasting damage has been done by the storytellers associated with global warming?  How much by that poor (but now rich),  goofball that put out Gasland?  We ignore the cultural impact made by storytellers at our peril.  Recall that Breitbart made his first and major thrust at the cultural battlefield, with Big Hollywood.

    Because Josh Fox and HBO reached millions with Gasland, we have a national problem that has, at its root, terrific disinformation.  We need storytellers to take something like Truthland and make it accesible to more of the public at large.  That will not be achieved by us tech nerds, or by the valiant attempt made by that science teacher.

    Civilization does not recall the years of effort Archimedes expended in learning and experimentation.  Some of civilzation does recall a story of him dripping with bath water, hollering, “Eureka”!

  9. genferei

    Isn’t this where bubbles come from: plausible types telling stories about niches to VC’s?

  10. Indaba

    Early stage companies run lean which results in tech guys dominating and they will often lack the people side of business, but they are more essential. If an investor sees a talker with a big idea, the business is not a go. The tech person needs to be the driver, either as the leader or a partner. The marketing and language side gets added later. 

  11. Aurelius

    CJRun, my reference to Chait isn’t an endorsement of the stories he favors. My main point is that storytelling is as important and natural to humans as eating. You only have the choice of doing it well or poorly. (See C.S. Lewis’s sermon “On Learning in Wartime”.) So like any craft, it needs to be studied by some even if it is not the ticket to a great job. Still, I grant the objection that going into serious debt to study literature is unwise. If people study engineering but work on reading  intelligently Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, Dickens, and the Psalter, I’d be just as happy. 

    Chait isn’t original in his observation. The concern that storytellers wield great influence on people goes back at least as far as Plato’s Republic.

    Geegaws–I learned a new word today. Thanks for that.

  12. John Walker
    Michael S. Malone:

    “And how do you do that?” Santosh asked. “You tell stories. …  And that’s why I want to meet your English majors.”

    This is a genuine question, not snark.  To what extent do English majors these days actually engage in creative writing, as opposed to analysis of existing texts?  Story-telling is something that most successful writers believe is learned by doing, failing at, picking oneself up again, and persisting until they master the craft.  I see no evidence that reading, analysing, or deconstructing stories equips one to tell them—were that the case, most science fiction fans would be great science fiction authors, and they aren’t.

    I’m also dubious whenever people speak of the humanities embodying “eternal truths”.  Sure, there are important things to be learned from human action, but the second law of thermodynamics was true long before the Sun condensed from its parent molecular cloud and will remain true long after humans are a long-forgotten footnote in the history of the cosmos.

    How many English majors can describe the second law in a sentence or two of lucid prose?

  13. Aurelius
    “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.”

    How much of the nation’s economy do niche software and design products represent? Not enough to make English literature a reliable means to shoehorn you into a successful start-up.

    I doubt that good literature professors would begrudge their  majors for landing such jobs. Nothing wrong with being able to support a family. I would be surprised if they argued this is why people should study literature.

    We study literature because, besides friendship, words and stories are among the best things we have. Being able to read intelligently and widely is its own reward, as is playing chess, woodworking, or writing a good sonnet. 

    They are also one of the principal means by which we learn what it means to be good. Jonathan Chait made an important point when he said the entertainment industry has successfully “mold[ed] the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements”. You are in large part the stories you read.

  14. Barfly

    And that is why we’re still courting socialism, value finance over production, value entertainment over education, and haven’t been back to the moon.

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