Humanities and Business: An Emerging Merger
By Susan Navarett, Ph.D.
Professor of English, Department Chair
HARTWICK STUDENTS, in growing numbers, are blending humanities studies with a business major, and in so doing, are capitalizing upon learning opportunities uniquely afforded within Hartwick College’s liberal arts setting.
Until recently, such a merger would have seemed untenable: an English major might, on her way to class, cross paths with a business major; if she coveted outlier status, she might actually befriend a business major. The academic interests and professional pursuits of the English versus the business major could not—so the story has gone— share less in common. The narrative has changed. Increasingly choosing to double major in business and a humanities discipline—English, for example, or art and art history, philosophy—Hartwick students are rejecting the decades-old attitude that has cast the humanities as little better than a “boutonnière” to the more practical skills afforded by a degree in business. Instead our students are recognizing that the two fields are in important ways mutually sustaining.
The times, they are a-changing: humanities majors are emerging as the “It” graduates, sought after by CEOs who, as noted in an October 2016 issue of The Wall Street Journal, are “newly hot on the trail of hires with liberal arts and humanities degrees,” with business and engineering majors “unseated” in a competitive job market because employers have of late judged their “soft skills … not up to par.” Humanities majors are rightly credited with possessing strong communication skills; they specialize in a mode of analysis that translates abstract values and obscure patterns of signification into cogent arguments; and—of unique value to CEOs—are “comfortable in multicultural environments” (“Hunting for Soft Skills, Companies Scoop Up English Majors,” WSJ [10/25/16]).
Closer to home, faculty such as Economics Professor Carli Ficano are identifying an “explicit collaboration with the humanities as a natural and important complement to future iterations of Hartwick’s business program.”
Humanities and business “folk” in fact traverse a common territory: their research involves analysis and the search for patterns of signification, although the associated data sets—words, numbers—have conventionally been thought to signify separate worlds of meaning.
- Mae Shea ’18 (English/business): “Numbers don’t mean anything until they’re paired with words, unless you give them context. We provide the context, we provide the meaning, as well as the words that narrate the story they tell.”
- Kevin Blake ’17 (English/biology): “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to raise sales 20%’ and it’ll happen. Someone’s going to have to make creative content, write the emails, write the Facebook posts, and create content which then leads to the numbers.”
- Tom Gillon ’17 (English/psychology minor): “Memorization without interpretation is nothing. If you just present data, without an interpretation of it, you can’t use whatever information you would have had had you interpreted [the data] more effortfully. You won’t have that information for the future and won’t be able to replicate results.”
John Christopher Hartwick Scholar Cosima Compton ’16, currently earning her MA in fashion brand management at Polimoda Institute of Fashion Design and Marketing in Florence, Italy, describes the crossreferential influence of her interdisciplinary Hartwick studies in slightly different terms: “My English minor taught me how to think from different perspectives, and navigate the information I’m given with a keen eye for detail, always watching for underlying significance. My business major taught me to approach literature with a level mind—weighing the inputs and the outcomes, charting each story’s progression, and considering the implications of the piece in the ‘real world.’” Compton arrived at Hartwick intent on focusing strictly on business—“I did not anticipate falling in love with the humanities,” she concedes.
Marketable skill sets aside, is there any place in the business world for those “soft,” Enlightenment values of independence of thought, value-based judgment, and aesthetic appreciation: values heretofore adjudged both the basis of a solid liberal arts education and the Achilles heel of the humanities? Enlightened corporate executives such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg increasingly argue so: “Companies that stand by the people who work for them do the right thing and the smart thing—it helps them serve their mission, live their values, and improve their bottom line by increasing the loyalty and performance of their workforce,” she says. “Values” and “mission” are not, Sandberg insists, separate from “performance” and “a bottom line.”
So far, then, from representing mutually distinct domains of training and pursuit, few pairings arguably make as much sense as a humanities and business double major. The truly breakthrough academic initiative, one that would distinguish Hartwick’s curriculum among college curricula nationwide, would be a Humanities-inBusiness track. Rather than a “luxury,” a greater investment in the skills and ideas cultivated in the humanities may very well facilitate a game-changing renaissance for business programs—and, for the prospective managers, entrepreneurs, and marketers graduating therefrom whose visions, values, and philosophies will shape corporate America and by extension America’s culture.
Appeared in Spring 2017 issue of The Wick