Can the arts and humanities be the professions of the future, part 2

When I checked my notes after writing my previous entry on the future demand for artists and humanists, I realised that I had also intended to consider an article written by Anant Agarwal arguing for the importance of so-called “soft skills” even in technical industries like software development. At the same time, The Conversation published an article from Sara James and Sarah Midford talking up the prospects for the humanities in improving the ethics of the technology industry.

Agarwal starts with a quote from Mark Cuban that seems very much in the spirit of what Jeffrey Sachs spoke about in Tech for Good: Cuban predicts that, in ten years, “a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree”. Agarwal says this is supported by a study at Google indicating that the top teams were interdisciplinary ones, and goes on to say respondents to a poll of his own said that “teamwork and collaboration are the most helpful soft skills in the workplace” (but since he only asked about soft skills we don’t know how his respondents thought they compared to hard skills). Agarwal doesn’t say what specific disciplines were involved in the Google study but emphasises “good communication, insights about others, and empathetic leadership” as factors in success.

One might point out that none of these things are philosophy as such (or even English, as the Washington Post article cited by Agarwal claims) and that artists can use just as much jargon and as little empathy as scientists and engineers. The Washington Post article doesn’t say what degrees had been studied by members of successful teams, either, only that the successful teams had qualities like “emotional safety” (interpreted as “no bullying” in the article), equality, curiosity, generosity and empathy. Most of these sound to me like broad personal qualities rather than skills from any particular discipline. And if there’s any particular course in which I’d expect things like communication and leadership to be taught, it would be management, and in fact the study that Agarwal cites to support the view that soft skills can be taught was carried out by a management school.

James and Midland cite the views of a number of thinkers who contend that the technology industry could benefit from humanities skills, concluding both that there’s a call for humanities graduates who can apply their skills to technology and that those who develop technology should be trained in “ethics, human rights and social justice” (I’m not sure if they mean that technologists should be trained in these things themselves, or that development teams should be made up of both technologists and the aforementioned humanists). As one of the more sensible comments on the article points out, however, it’s not very clear what a humanities graduate would actually do upon being employed by a technology company. It’s not as if ethics is a new idea or ethics weren’t important up until now, or even that engineers aren’t trained in ethics (they are), so what is the incentive for technology companies (or anyone else) to hire any more ethicists—much less philosophers or English majors—than they already do?

Some other commenters on James and Midland’s article accuse it of sad pleading for the relevance of the humanities, but it might be more precise to say that James, Midlands, Agarwal and the thinkers that they cite are groping for economic importance, and trying to convince themselves that a system that values only paid work will provide it. But the humanities are important insofar as they address our nature as humans, not our nature as economic units, so the question is not how to make the humanities pay, but how to pay for the humanities.

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