Contributor Post Created with Sketch. A Case for the Humanities

 
Skyler: Right and wrong aren’t that hard to figure out, and we simply don’t need snobs sitting around pretending they know better than the rest of us what is obvious. . . .

Let’s be honest, folks. If you get an “education” that only covers soft topics like English and history and philosophy where any answer can be correct depending on how you frame it, you’re not educated so much as you’re good at selling a line. . . .

Anyone can study liberal arts. It’s easy because there is no right or wrong answer. . .

The passages that I have quoted from two of Skyler’s comments on the provocative piece Online Training vs. Online Education that I posted on Saturday do not do full justice to his position. Read in full context what he has to say does not involve as categorical a rejection of philosophy, literature, and history as these passages might suggest, and I in fact agree with him that a liberal education that excludes math and science is woefully incomplete — but it is worth saying at the outset that the liberal arts, as traditionally understood, included math and science and that, at Hillsdale College, math and science are central to the core curriculum. That having been said, I am indebted to Skyler for his pungent comments, and I apologize for taking them out of context. In the latter guise, they are, however, a provocation, and that I cannot resist.

Although I will take issue with the remarks quoted above, let me begin by saying that they do point to something quite real. Modern science is rooted in mathematics. It presupposes that Galileo was right when he suggested that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. As Plato observed long ago, there is a precision to mathematics that cannot be achieved in any of the human sciences. This is not, however, because for the questions raised in the humanities “there is no right or wrong answer.” It is rather because Blaise Pascal — a great scientist and an even greater mathematician — was right when he distinguished l’esprit de geometrie from l’esprit de finesse. In some spheres, we measure, and our measurements can be precise and our conclusions possess a species of certitude. In other spheres, we exercise judgment, and, while our judgment can be good or bad, it can almost never be precise and almost never be certain because the subject does not admit precision or certitude.

Should I marry this woman? Would she make a good wife and a fine mother? In advance, I can never know for sure. I can only guess. But my guess can be an educated guess or it can be ill-informed. I can get to know her. I can learn about her past conduct. I can meet her family. I can introduce her to my friends and later ask them what they think. We can go through Pre-Cana together. I can interrogate myself. Am I blind? Am I driven by passion? Do I have my eyes open? I can puzzle over her aspirations. But when I have done everything that can be done, I will have to exercise judgment — l’esprit de finesse. Moreover, I can do everything right and still be wrong because, in matters moral and prudential, right and wrong are, in fact, quite hard to figure out. True clarity is achieved, for the most part anyway, only in hindsight.

What I have said about this matter applies with equal force to a great many of the decisions we have to make. We may not have to deliberate as to whether we should commit adultery or steal, but we do have to do so with regard to how we conduct a political campaign, interpret incomplete intelligence data concerning the Iranian nuclear program, handle at work our superiors and subordinates, and rear our children.

This is where the study of philosophy, literature, and history can be of great use. I do not mean to say that one cannot learn judgment and discernment in the school of hard knocks, and I most certainly do not mean to say that one cannot learn an enormous amount from reading good books on one’s own. Consider the education that Winston Churchill provided for himself — as described in My Early Life. There are any number of ways to skin this particular cat.

I would only insist that philosophy, literature, and history can help immeasurably and that one can profit from the help of an instructor. Put crudely, philosophy can help us consider from an abstract perspective how we should live our lives; literature can help us consider this crucial question from a variety of concrete perspectives; and history can help us do so from a variety of socio-political perspectives. After all, we do not make all of the choices we make in isolation from our contemporaries. Some of these choices are collective — whether, alas, we like it or not.

Literature (including, of course, films) and history (including its bastard offspring political science and economics) invite us to put ourselves imaginatively in situations we have not yet encountered and to ruminate. What did these characters and these historical figures do when faced with such-and-such a situation, and did they handle it well? How could they have done better? How could they have done worse? Is their situation in any way analogous to my own?

You may wish to respond to me that colleges and universities today offer students little help in this regard — that historians are more focused on subjects like basket-weaving during the American Revolution than on subjects like the justification for our break with Britain, that literature professors prefer teaching pornography to teaching Shakespeare. And I will readily admit that the humanities have gone off the deep end — that the professoriate is more interested in purveying a crazed politics and in personal self-indulgence than in providing occasions for rumination and reflection. There is a strange mixture of preposterous moralism (always the enemy of genuine morality) and nihilism ascendant in the academy today, and one is apt to learn from a class more about one’s professor than about the subject he (or she) purports to teach. Today, it is all true. Alas.

But the great books and the telling events and developments remain. And hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the worst of our modern universities are scholars and teachers who read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, Herodotus, and Thucydides in the proper fashion — not as objects to be turned inside out in light of the latest academic fashion but as challenges to reigning opinion and as potential sources for a wisdom we lack. And hidden away in history departments and even, God help us, in some political science and economic departments are scholars and teachers who have fertile minds, who are deeply interested in large issues and great events, and who are not deluded that one can achieve in the social sciences the certitude and precision possible in the natural sciences.

In the academy, there were always dullards and drips, but there have always been real teachers as well. Students must make it a point to find them and to exploit them. If you have children, tell them as much.

When I was at the University of Tulsa, I used to teach a great many prospective engineers (most of them prospective petroleum engineers). One of them, a fellow who stumbled into an upper-level history seminar on Thucydides without ever having taken a history course, was the best student I encountered in my twenty-four years there — exceptionally bright, quick to learn, and deeply thoughtful.

A fair proportion of these young people, however, were deeply hostile to the humanities. For them, that which could not be quantified did not exist. They were in my course because of distribution requirements, and they resented the imposition on their time.

In my initial lecture, I tried to explain to them one fact of life. When they graduated from the engineering school, their skills as engineers would get them a job. If they advanced in the profession, however, they would soon find themselves managing other people — and what they learned in engineering school would not help them with that. There was more to the world they were entering than things subject to precise measurement. There were human beings, and in dealing with them they would be in need of judgment.

I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married, and to them I posed this question. When there was trouble in their marriages and when their children ran astray, what help could their engineering courses offer them?

There is, I would submit, a place for philosophy, literature, and history even in the curriculum of schools of engineering, business, accounting, and nursing, and it is no accident that law schools and medical schools expect applicants to have had a liberal education.

There are 92 comments.

  1. Mel Foil Inactive

    Sad to say, but for a lot of people, good ethics and right reason are not so instinctive. Humanities is for their benefit, and by extension, ours.

    • #1
    • August 21, 2012, at 4:27 AM PDT
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  2. Foxman Inactive

    I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married

    I would point out that we engineers tend to stay married more often than most. Maybe something in that engineering training helps.

    • #2
    • August 21, 2012, at 4:52 AM PDT
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  3. Mel Foil Inactive
    Foxman: “I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married”

    I would point out that we engineers tend to stay married more often than most. Maybe something in that engineering training helps.

    They understand specialization.

    • #3
    • August 21, 2012, at 4:59 AM PDT
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  4. Guruforhire Member

    I think there is a difference in humanities programs.

    I dont look fondly on the humanities I had to take in either go around with higher education. But I got older and barnes and noble has 2 for 1 classics. Some better than others.

     Hudson books also has classics in the airport or at least they used too. I really dislike 20th century literature. Hearts of Darkness wasnt terrible though.

    • #4
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:08 AM PDT
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  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Foxman: “I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married”

    I would point out that we engineers tend to stay married more often than most. Maybe something in that engineering training helps. · 0 minutes ago

    It could be that when we see that something isn’t optimal, we get busy finding the cause and the solution.

    That said, I was fortunate that the University of Illinois made all of us propeller-heads take at least a little taste of the humanities. One of the things that make the Great Books great is that one tends to lead you to others.

    Starting history with Thucydides? He’s still reading that stuff, then. I still am.

    • #5
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:08 AM PDT
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  6. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    My college did not teach me to think for myself. It’s goal was to teach me how to think as my professors thought. The only real teachers I had were in the hard sciences, they taught me to question, to push, to invent. The Humanities profs just wanted me to parrot them. Most were silly, some should have been locked up for their own safety.

    • #6
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:14 AM PDT
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  7. AUMom Member
    AUMom Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I (a humanities graduate) am married to an engineer’s engineer. It was not the engineering that kept us together for 33 years. It was patience, lots and lots of patience, in spite of the need to be efficient. 

    Foxman: “I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married”

    I would point out that we engineers tend to stay married more often than most. Maybe something in that engineering training helps. · 22 minutes ago

    • #7
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:21 AM PDT
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  8. Profile Photo Member
    Paul A. Rahe

    In the academy, there were always dullards and drips, but there have always been real teachers as well. Students must make it a point to find them and to exploit them. If you have children, tell them as much.

    And I absolutely intend to. This is probably the most important take-away from your post for me. No one told me this, and I went through highschool and university in a disenchanted and pathetic state. But looking back, I only remember the teachers that actually had something relevant to say and pass on, not the ones that read from the textbook.

    • #8
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:28 AM PDT
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  9. Foxman Inactive

    As an engineering student I saw the humanities as a way to up my grade point average without much effort.

    • #9
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:31 AM PDT
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  10. Foxman Inactive
    AUMom: It was patience, lots and lots of patience, in spite of the need to be efficient. 
     

    10 minutes ago

    Patience on your part, your husband’s or both?

    • #10
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:32 AM PDT
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  11. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    Guruforhire: I think there is a difference in humanities programs.

    I dont look fondly on the humanities I had to take in either go around with higher education. But I got older and barnes and noble has 2 for 1 classics. Some better than others.

     Hudson books also has classics in the airport or at least they used too. I really dislike 20th century literature. Hearts of Darkness wasnt terrible though. · 27 minutes ago

    Edited 24 minutes ago

    Try The Lord of the Rings.

    • #11
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:37 AM PDT
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  12. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    Foxman: “I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married”

    I would point out that we engineers tend to stay married more often than most. Maybe something in that engineering training helps. · 44 minutes ago

    Perhaps, there is a certain sobriety already present in the majority of those who choose engineering. I do not remember ever having met an airhead among the engineers I taught.

    • #12
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:43 AM PDT
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  13. genferei Member
    genferei Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    It seems that the basic lesson is “It’s not as simple as you think.” Particular instances of this include “people are not as simple as you think”, “you are not as simple as you think”, “the concepts of right, wrong, justice, fairness, truth etc. are not as simple as you think.”

    It seems plausible that the tendency to oversimplify, or to trust one’s own judgment, is particularly advanced in very smart people – perhaps because schooling has taught them that they are ‘better’ than those around them.

    For these people, who will be over-represented in universities, a strong corrective will be required. They need to have their confidence in themselves shaken by having the (glorious) complexity of existence in general and human beings in particular pointed out to them in a way that appeals to — at the same time that it shakes — their intellectual vanity.

    A bracing course in the humanities can provide just such a necessary corrective.

    For the less intellectually gifted, the idea that the world and people are complex and different, that conclusions are generally contingent, etc. is an obvious part of lived reality, and does not require Tolstoy, Thucydides or Plato.

    • #13
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:47 AM PDT
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  14. mask Inactive

    Are the humanities useful? Yes. Is it worth all the time and money (debt) of actually getting a degree focused on it? I’d say no for the overwhelming majority of people. I think studying some aspect of the humanities (like theology, history etc) make excellent hobby pursuits throughout life that can enrich life.

    I have a degree in psychology but have worked for nearly a decade as a software engineer and I deeply regret not getting a degree in an engineering field instead of pursuing psychology (I thought I wanted to be a therapist at the time). I plan on discouraging my children from pursuing degrees which don’t prepare you for a career or teach a practicable skill or marketable knowledge base.

    Also, it seems to me that at most universities the humanities department is geared towards liberal indoctrination and not critical thinking. Chances are that if there is a “hate speech free zone” or other such speech code nonsense at an institution of supposedly higher learning there is a humanities professor or two behind it.

    • #14
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:48 AM PDT
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  15. Sheepdog Inactive
    This argument seems misplaced, with respect. The question shouldn’t be “Should a liberal arts education be taught.” The question should be: “Why is a liberal arts education taught in an objectively graded manner?” As far as our schooling system works, it’s designed to shaft the kind of “soft” learning Mr. Rahe purports as the benefit of a liberal arts education. Taking these classes for a grade doesn’t encourage any of the self awareness and critical thought that the author would like to believe they do. This is the problem, the maths and sciences are treated fairly by allocating grades, because grades themselves are an extension of something being able to be quantitatively measured. But the liberal arts suffers under this graded regime: beyond all other points how can we expect a teacher to teach under such a requirement? Are tests and notecards the best way to understand history and literature? So until the liberal arts’ differences (not shortcomings) are represented fairly in the system, I agree wholeheartedly with Skyler. The problem isn’t the topic, it’s how it’s taught. These days students would be better off going to a library. It’s free.
    • #15
    • August 21, 2012, at 5:49 AM PDT
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  16. Foxman Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe
     

     I do not remember ever having met an airhead among the engineers I taught. · 15 minutes ago

    Like TOTALLY. That is so AWESOME.

    • #16
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:01 AM PDT
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  17. FloppyDisk90 Member

    Economics is the “bastard offspring” of history? While I suppose this is technically true from a geneology standpoint, I’m puzzling over why you felt compelled to render what I perceived as this back-handed slap to a discipline that is far more rigorous then either of its predecessors (history, poli-sci).

    I will note I have some small experience in economics and it is far closer to math as taught today (particularly at the graduate level) then it is to history or political science, despite it’s origins in the later.

    • #17
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:01 AM PDT
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  18. The Mugwump Inactive

    Whoever coined the term “humanities” was a genius of unusual insight. It’s a broad field of study with many disciplines, and yet it all boils down to the study of human nature. I would submit that every thinking man with a shred of self-awareness is a student of the humanities. The only choice we face is whether or not we use the signposts placed along the way by previous generations because human nature doesn’t change. Ignoring the humanities only ensures that we stumble needlessly over the rocks and stones of life’s vicissitudes where a paved path already exists. As I instructed my own students: “You can learn it here in the classroom, or you can learn it in the school of hard knocks. Your choice.”

    • #18
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:07 AM PDT
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  19. Foxman Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe
    Foxman: “I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married”

    I would point out that we engineers tend to stay married more often than most. Maybe something in that engineering training helps. · 44 minutes ago

    Perhaps, there is a certain sobriety already present in the majority of those who choose engineering. I do not remember ever having met an airhead among the engineers I taught. · 17 minutes ago

    Actually, I agree with you. My post above was half-way in jest. On the other hand I do not see where the entry-level Humanities courses available to me at the time would be of much value in marriage. They tended to have high Student to Teacher ratios so the classes were mostly swallow-regurgitate.

    • #19
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:09 AM PDT
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  20. AUMom Member
    AUMom Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My always truthful husband will say on mine. I am sure he had to exercise his as well. 

    Foxman
    AUMom: It was patience, lots and lots of patience, in spite of the need to be efficient. 
     

    10 minutes ago

    Patience on your part, your husband’s or both? · 42 minutes ago

    • #20
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:16 AM PDT
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  21. Kofola Inactive
    Paul A. Rahe

     Students must make it a point to find them and to exploit them.

    Unfortunately, more often than not they use the means at their disposal to pursue the opposite….Find the professors that will give them the easy A (or the easy C- as it were) with as minimal effort possible.

    • #21
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:22 AM PDT
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  22. mask Inactive

    It seems to me that a good education into human nature and the people skills necessary to find and stay married to a good spouse come from the home.

    A humanities education can help to strengthen that which is good and learned in the home or to rectify lapses in what the home did not teach but these sorts of things are primarily learned in the home (e.g., your parent’s relationship will teach more powerfully about marriage – good or bad – than literature will).

    • #22
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:23 AM PDT
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  23. KC Mulville Inactive

    It’s not true to say that in the humanities, there is no right and wrong. The difference between the humanities and hard sciences is that in the hard sciences, beliefs can be corroborated through observation. Not so in the humanities, but that doesn‘t make the humanities a “fashion free-for-all.” Unfortunately, when humanities teachers take that attitude, it leads to the abuses complained about above.

    It pays to remember that Logic is the prerequisite of philosophy. Logic can’t referee truth, but it can referee validity. Following that, humanities courses don’t (or shouldn’t) offer one view, but examine the reasoning behind traditional or standard views. We learn critical thinking through the experience.

    If you believe that the only subjects worth studying are those where you can identify a single, “right” answer, then I’d argue that you have a limited view of what study is about.

    • #23
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:28 AM PDT
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  24. genferei Member
    genferei Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I wonder how, if at all, this discussion interfaces with C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures?

    • #24
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:31 AM PDT
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  25. Grendel Member
    Grendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    At my first college, I was told that an older classmate (he was a Navy vet) scoffed at my aspirations toward the ideal of the Renaissance Man (I fell short, of course). “But I defended you!” my informant declared. “I told him you were a dilettante”.

    The professors at the University of Binghamton used to pick up extra cash by devising one-week mini-courses and selling them to the local IBM installation. My manager sent me to one called something like “Ethics and Engineering”, where notwithstanding degrees in Math, Physics, and CompSci I was the only non-engineer. The professor, a Navy Reserve Captain, drew on the Classical Greek writers to argue that engineering is just techne, a means, not an end in itself, whereas humans are ends in themselves. Unless a person recognizes this about himself, he risks being just a means to others’ ends. The ethical issue is not that one might find himself building Hitler’s gas chambers, but that one must make right choices, first about what one’s proper end is, what one should become–and then about what is the proper way to reach that end. 

    • #25
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:34 AM PDT
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  26. MichaelC19fan Member

    You may wish to respond to me that colleges and universities today offer students little help in this regard

    Isn’t that the fundamental issue. I took humanities to fulfill requirements and some history courses for fun but looking back it was throwing thousands of dollars down a rat hole for the point you concede. I have learned much more watching programming on cable, including several programs you Dr. Rahe were on, and reading on my own than I ever learned in college. 

    • #26
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:40 AM PDT
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  27. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    FloppyDisk90: Economics is the “bastard offspring” of history? . . . I’m puzzling over why you felt compelled to render what I perceived as this back-handed slap to a discipline that is far more rigorous then either of its predecessors (history, poli-sci).

    I will note I have some small experience in economics and it is far closer to math as taught today (particularly at the graduate level) then it is to history or political science, despite it’s origins in the later. · 32 minutes ago

    I was hoping to provoke.

    Economics is historical in the sense that it is based on an analysis of prior events and on an extrapolation into the future. I called it a “bastard offspring” because economists aspire to have physics as their model and tend to presume that human conduct can be predicted in the same fashion as molecular interactions. In consequence, with considerable frequency, the proud purveyors of mathematical models are caught flat-footed. As is often said, the economics have predicted ten of the last five recessions.

    I favor comparative history (which is what economists engage in), but not the pretension to scientific precision (which they cannot deliver).

    • #27
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:44 AM PDT
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  28. Matt Blankenship Inactive

    In his excellent post above, Prof. Rahe addresses the rampant politicization in the humanities. We’ve all heard the horror stories about classes with ridiculous titles, or serious-sounding classes ruined by a professor’s political agenda. I think an even more widespread problem is the lack of rigor in humanities courses. Even though it is impossible to answer these questions with mathematical certainty, it most certainly is possible to approach this subject matter seriously, with rigor. Too often, that doesn’t happen, even in legitimate courses. I was an English major at the Univ. of Oklahoma (also taking pre-med prerequisites). I majored in English for exactly the reasons that Prof. Rahe outlines. For the most part, I sought classes that at least sounded like they had substance. However, I’m not sure I would choose English again, and I definitely would not advise my children to do it. In short, with few exceptions, the classes were too easy. If I were doing it again, I would go for a language–maybe Classics. Or perhaps economics. But then my GPA would not have been padded by all those A’s…

    • #28
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:45 AM PDT
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  29. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    genferei: I wonder how, if at all, this discussion interfaces with C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures? · 15 minutes ago

    That would be worthy of a post, and you should write it.

    • #29
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:48 AM PDT
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  30. Look Away Inactive

    When I entered commercial banking 30 years ago banks hired a huge percentage of liberal arts majors into their training programs. They were looking at well rounded, educated men and women with strong oral, written and reasoning skills. With the right raw material they could train bankers. They invested three years in my banking education.

    As I look back many years later, the B-school grads either left or specialized. It was the liberal arts types that moved up. Today this is all different. Banks do not invest three years in college grads and therefore hire primarily B-School grads as they are “ready made”. However when you deal with the “new Bankers” they tend to be very commodity oriented, guided by playbooks and do not understand their craft. This is one of the major reasons that bank lending is failing business, particularly small business IMHO.

    • #30
    • August 21, 2012, at 6:50 AM PDT
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