In the years leading up the last French Presidential election, economic growth, or “la croissance”, became a political buzzword in France. The French president at the time, François Hollande, staked his reelection on growth. He failed to deliver and never put his name forward for a second shot at being le président. His Minister of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron, was responsible for delivering la croissance yet failed to do so. He ended up with the top job.
Like France, many countries emphasize the economic growth. Growth speaks to an important part of individual lives: everyone needs money to pay the bills. Yet, can we stop here and argue that needing to pay the bills is a sufficient reason for focusing on economic growth, to the exclusion of everything else?
The human consequences
A recent story in the New Yorker illustrates the danger of doing so. In “Exploitation and Abuse at the Chicken Plant“, Michael Grabell looks into the workings of Case Farm, a firm that processes chicken. Its operations rely on an army of vulnerable immigrants who lack legal status in the US. Many of its workers end up with severe physical harm (e.g., losing limbs) in grueling working conditions. Case Farm is in no hurry to improve the unsafety of its working conditions nor to see the US immigration system change. It benefits financially from its access to undocumented individuals who need every cent they can scrap by, and it finds ever new ways to recruit them. In a culture that prizes economic growth, the human costs of profits fall off the radar; consumers trained to focus on price, and/or unable to pay more for their chicken, do not ask questions about the human sacrifices involved in getting chicken packaged and ready for sale. Case Farm fights tooth and nail against fines for unsafe working conditions that cause injuries to its workers.
This story shows the deleterious human consequences of a single-minded focus on economic growth. It also raises the question what we, as educators, can do to help, especially since most of us work in the environment of business schools that focus on educating individuals about business and profit-seeking. How can we ensure that the leaders, entrepreneurs and employees of tomorrow are fair and humane toward others, and that they know the often grave human consequences of the pursuit of economic growth?
A possible answer to this question was suggested last year by the American novelist Marilynne Robinson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. She wrote about the importance of humanities in university education in an article called “What are we doing here?“. She argued that humanities help individuals be capable citizens. She cautioned against an education that narrowly focusses on producing workers who happily, unquestioningly tug along to turn and grease the wheels of the great competitive engine that is the economy.
Marilynne Robinson’s emphasis on the role of humanities in university education is relevant, as well, to business schools whose curriculum is often anchored in economics. Economics can be useful for thinking about many aspects of business and of life in society, a point made by Nobel Laureate Jean Tirole in his book “Economics for the Common Good”. He illustrates how economics allows for useful analysis of how business activities are tied to the issue of climate change. Yet, economics also falls short on important questions for life in society: it ignores culture and is silent about ethics, as argued by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro in their book “Cents and Sensibility: What Economics can learn from Humanities”.
Culture and ethics is what humanities and liberal arts excel at: they see beyond economic growth and look at life in its complexities, culture and ethics included. Take literature, in particular fiction. A novel can transport its reader into another life and thereby nurtures their empathy. The reader feels like the story they are reading is their own and goes through the experience of the novel as if it were their own too. A great many authors have written novels about subjects relevant to students in business schools: Richard Russo (“Empire Falls”), Gabrielle Roy (“Bonheur d’Occasion”), Tom Wolfe (“Bonfire of Vanities”), and Alice Munro (“Runaway”), to cite but a few.
If humanities and liberal arts can step in where economics falls short, in particular culture and ethics, the next question is what business schools and universities should do about this. Should business schools encourage their students to enroll in classes in other departments (e.g., Philosophy, Political science, Modern Languages) or even require this? Should business schools invite professors from other faculties to teach and research in their midst? Should universities promote interdisciplinary research and teaching, and should they have professors from different faculties mingle and cooperate to think about important questions from different perspectives? An upcoming conference in December 2018 at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, takes such an interdisciplinary approach and invites researchers from different disciplines to debate the responsibility that organizations have in society (the call for papers is posted here; the submission deadline is August 15 2018).
There is another side to the role of humanities and liberal arts in business schools. Universities face budget cuts and need to decide what disciplines to prioritize in their funding decisions. Many argue that STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) need to be given priority because they are directly applicable. The Conference Board of Canada wrote in 2015 that “Innovation and productivity improvements often emerge from new technologies whose development, adoption, and effective use require one or more STEM capabilities.”
STEM disciplines enjoy substantial support across the globe. In 2011, US President Barack Obama encouraged increasing the number of STEM graduates to 100,000 by 2021. At the time, the US Acting Secretary of Commerce underlined the “importance of STEM education for job creation and economic development”. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has since developed a set of recommendations, practices and tools that encourage an “effective STEM education” in K-12 schools. In 2017, the The Trump administration has continued along this path and directed the Secretary of Education to give priority to STEM disciplines. In 2017, the NSF supported STEM disciplines with awards worth $10 to $20 million US dollars.
STEM disciplines are promoted by numerous countries as well as internationally, via the European Union and UNESCO. Nonprofit organizations (e.g., the Association of American Universities, Canada 2067, the STEM Education Coalition) and for-profit corporations (e.g., BP, Lockhead Martin, Accenture) are joining these efforts, often by lobbying politicians and intervening during the policy process. In 2017, technology companies (e.g., Amazon, Facebook, Google) pledged $300 million to the Trump administration for promoting computer science in K-12 schools.
Against the backdrop of the enthusiasm for STEM disciplines, a series of voices question the wisdom of focusing on STEM. In fact, these voices have been raising questions for quite some time now. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously pointed out that “It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
Nobody drives this point home more clearly than the people supposed to appreciate a STEM-focused educational curriculum: those who are hiring. The Scientific American reports the results from a 2013 survey of more than 318 employers in the US, which showed that respondents particularly value the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”. At the World Economic Forum, Jeroo Billimoria, founder of Child and Youth Finance International, cautions against a STEM-centered curriculum and argues that it fails to take into account the multi-dimensional complexities that influence economic growth, development and living together. These complexities make it difficult, if not impossible, to predict today what qualifications employees and entrepreneurs of the future need. They might be better met with an education that embraces these complexities and includes humanities and liberal arts as well. To this, one can add my earlier point that humanities and liberal arts also provide a window on the human and social aspects of work and life.
A new approach, that augments STEM by taking into account humanities and liberal arts, is gaining momentum. It is known as STEAM (short for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) and so far has attracted attention mostly in North America. Although it lacks the generous funding that STEM disciplines have attracted from government and corporate purses, it is supported by non-profit organizations (Kids come first, World Learning, the Chicago Public Library Foundation) and educational institutions ranging from kindergarten to university (e.g., the International Partnership of Education Research and Communication).
The big questions
The interest in STEM and STEAM raises the larger question of what goal a university education should ultimately serve. Should universities prepare individuals for future professional pursuits? If so, what is the best approach – should we focus on the disciplines that through today’s looking glass seem to hold the most promise (STEM) thereby sidestepping the possibility that the future may not look like anything we can conceive of today? Or should we cast our net wider, insist that we cannot predict what ten or twenty years from now hold, stress the importance of the human and social aspects of work, and focus on learning as much as we can about the different complexities of life by promoting humanities and liberal arts as well (STEAM)?
These questions presume that preparing individuals for future professional pursuits is enough. Is it? If we move away from a focus on professional pursuits, the question then becomes what exactly university education should be about. Should it be about educating about life itself, about its different facets, possibilities and difficulties? Should it be about learning for the pure sake of it, for the sheer intellectual enrichment, where inquisitiveness, experimentation, and imagination are key, jobs be damned?
The latter approach may appear selfish in an era of budget cuts and funding priorities. Yet it bears remembering that pursuits with no stated goal and with no direct applicability were often those that down the road allowed for big jumps in knowledge and transformed daily lives. The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University was founded to make room for precisely these kinds of pursuits, which it calls “the free pursuit of useless knowledge”. Its founding director, Abraham Flexner, observed that most grand discoveries of benefit to human kind were made by men and women “driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity”.
Maybe we should not pick. Perhaps universities should be different things to different people and should be complex, just like life itself.