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.”