Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.

Degrading School

At least as far back as 1965, education researchers knew there existed no correlation between college grades and subsequent career success. In a review of the literature, “The Relationship Between College Grades and Adult Achievement,” published by ACT (the American College Testing Program), Donald P. Hoyt concluded that “…college grades bear little or no relationship to any measures of adult accomplishment” (paper). Hoyt later served as President of ACPA (American College Personnel Association). In a workshop he gave in 1970, he was still advocating for change in testing, assessment, and counseling that would be student focused: “The need for non-standardized measures occurs in two contexts. First, in helping students plan their future there is frequently a need for appraisal of special talents or inclinations beyond those concerned with academic background or potential. Second, is trying to determine the effectiveness of a given program – such as counseling method, teaching approach, or orientation program – standardized measures are seldom appropriate indicators of success” (paper). The workshop asked three decisive questions: “What is success? What is educational success? And how is a person appraised if he is doing well or poorly?” And how does an individual blend another’s appraisal with his own self-appraisal, particularly if he doesn’t speak the appraisal language? “Part of a middle class background,” Hoyt said, “which doesn’t let you enter freely makes you unable to talk. You can’t understand, you can’t feel, and I feel very much personally this way. I think if not the most significant, this inability to talk is one of the most significant problems in education today.” Yet he advocates for student self-appraisal because one of the most important outcomes of the appraisal process is “knowing who the customer is and knowing how he is proceeding.”

For the most part, Hoyt was speaking to testing assessments, but letter grades, often assigned subjectively, in spite of efforts to create objective rubrics, are also discussed and considered in the question concerning the effectiveness of the assessment process. But does the fact that a grade is assigned subjectively make it any less meaningful? Yet assigning letter grades in the adult student learning environment may lack a persuasive objective. Students may be given a weak rhetorical picture of achievement or progress, what is being measured may not be fitted to what was learned, raw intelligence may be rewarded while hard work may be ignored, and educators may not have reliable assessment data on which to judge the effectiveness of their programs.

Grading is a game of competition, and, increasingly, gamers are opting out. Last year, Harvard announced it would no longer “assume” courses would end with the traditional three-hour exam. The exams are now the exception rather than the rule. Predictably, not everyone was happy with the decision: “Even Harvard’s new General Education courses will abjure finals. We are left wondering: Without exams to prove it, how can students be sure that they are ‘generally educated’ when they graduate? How can the institution itself be sure? Or doesn’t it care?”, came a critique called “Bye-bye Blue Books?” in Harvard Magazine. Of course it cares, but one escapes a rip tide by swimming parallel to shore, not against the current. Meanwhile, grading is still the only game in town, with or without final exams. Louis Menand, writing in the May 21, 2007 New Yorker, said, “American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters.” But does every little difference matter? And, if so, matter toward what? Is education like golf? “You’re on your own,” Menand says. “Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam. There is only another test. People seem to pick up on this earlier and earlier in their lives, and at some point it starts to get in the way of their becoming educated. You can’t learn when you’re afraid of being wrong.” Having to be right all the time both mirrors and shatters the expectation that the student must get an A, every time, on every paper, in every class. Menand concludes with this counter-proposal: “We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days.”

No game is more competitive, where, indeed, “every little difference” is vital to the outcome, than golf. Perhaps graders and graded alike might benefit from a review of the common but deceiving golf card. A par in golf is the number of strokes an average golfer is expected to hit on any particular hole. The pars traditionally are 3, 4, or 5. Comparing golf scores to academic grading, we might say that an Eagle (two under par) approximates an “A” (it being an unarguable assumption that holes in one almost never happen, and when they do it’s a matter of chance, not skill); a Birdie is a “B”; a Par is a “C”; and a Bogie is a “D.” The problem (as the analogy relates to grading) is that most amateur golfers never shoot par; they shoot well below par. The average is D or below. To be an average golfer is to be a below average golfer. That average golfers nevertheless fantasize and consider themselves “A” golfers is one of the emperor wears no clothes hilarities of our time. Golf courses are designed to test the golfer’s mastery of the sport, and some are more difficult than others, and the par for the course reflects this. Women tee off closer to the hole; but amateurs do too, and pros are supposed to hit from the most remote tees. Thus the first, and perhaps only, opponent in golf is the course.

Grades are the business side of school, the currency of the exchange, and the discussion of inflation and deflation is ongoing, as is talk of the need to revalue or devalue, of the value of the grade against some other currency. I wish we could degrade school. Doesn’t that sound funny? Of course that’s exactly what many think we have done. I got the idea for the term “degrading school” from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.

Related: “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,” by Louis Menand, June 6, 2011, New Yorker.