Business people and entrepreneurs like myself often talk about ‘nice to have’ and ‘need to have.’ The latter refers to things you cannot do without. In a start-up IT company like mine, this could be things like a computer, desk, chair, and mobile phone. Examples of ‘nice to have’ items could be a foosball table or a designer lamp.
Transferred to the world of education, the logic in recent years seems to be that the humanities should be trimmed because these are merely ‘nice to have’ for society. This is the subject of discussion in my home country of Denmark, but it is also an argument you find in many other countries – e.g. in the UK, the US, and the Netherlands.
The argument is that the path is longer from the humanities to the labor market than it is from business studies. The intake to humanities courses should therefore be better matched to the needs of the labor market. Especially in our age of digitalization, disruption, and rapid changes at the global level.
But is this a definitive truth, or a truth in need of some essential modifications and refinements?
In my view, humanities should not be secondary, but primary, in the majority of tertiary courses around the world. Any country would be well served to take the lead in this area.
I believe this for two main reasons:
- As a society and as people, we also need knowledge and research that does not immediately translate into jobs and growth. Simply because this knowledge and research is valuable in itself. If everything becomes a matter of instrumentalism (the idea that one activity must lead to another), we will lose something fundamental to being human.
- Based on a number of factors, including commercial ones, humanities subjects such as philosophy or anthropology are just as vital to the future labor market as computer science, law, etc.
Feeling skeptical? Let me illustrate the second reason based on an exciting event I recently had the pleasure of hosting.
The event was attended by over 200 entrepreneurs, leaders, and students, and one of the keynote speakers was Jimmy Maymann. Maymann has been called on by President Obama to share his knowledge and insights, and has served as CEO of US giants such as Huffington Post and Aol. Prior to these positions, Maymann sold Neo Ideo for over €13 million and later GoViral for almost €135 million, and most recently Aol for €4 billion.
While events like the one mentioned above typically repeat the same messages about lower capital taxation, better conditions for investors, and so on, the tone was very different this time. The traditional business discussions quickly died down and were replaced, led in part by Maymann, by a lively debate about what countries should live for in the future and not just from.
In this context, Jimmy Maymann made a comment that was atypical for many business leaders and entrepreneurs: anthropology and philosophy should play a bigger role in all nations – including in business studies.
Many of the young entrepreneurship and innovation students applauded loudly, and it was refreshing for an entrepreneur such as myself to hear someone articulate an idea that does not usually seem to be an integral part of the business mentality.
To see the reasons why anthropology and philosophy – and the humanities in general – should play an increasingly important role, one only needs to look at the world.
Nations in many parts of the world are struggling to remain cohesive. While this may be partially attributable to economic crises in some countries, it’s also an expression of the fact that there is no direct purpose built into the business world. One hears the argument again and again that the purpose of business is business.
However, countries like Denmark and many other Western European nations have historically stood for something else. In addition to the fact that our welfare society and high degree of equality have been able to ensure cohesiveness, back in the 1970s, the Danish Government dared to take the lead and invest in sustainable energy. This not only provided a clear vision for Denmark as a nation, it also gave a boost to business. One of the outflows of which we see today is a great company like windmill manufacturer Vestas – employing over 22,000 people and earning billions for shareholders and the welfare society alike.
Vestas is a shining example of how value-based companies can also be very good business. Vestas illustrates how – by recognizing the challenges and standing together as a nation – we can contribute to solving some of the world’s pressing problems.
The question is, however, from what source such large new companies should arise, as our approach right now doesn’t appear to be nurturing them.
One visionary suggestion could be that we should incorporate anthropology and philosophy into business studies, so people dare to ask the big questions in life. This would give our youth a basic appreciation of the fact that even though some problems might seem to lie far in the future (such as the climate crisis) or far away geographically (such as drinking water and electricity problems in Africa and Asia), the fact is we need to solve these problems now. Not in the distant future.
American Peter Diamandis has said that the billionaires of the future will be the people that solve sustainability challenges for billions of people. This statement arises not only from the business world, but also very much from philosophy, ethics, and anthropology.
When politicians and business people claim that philosophy is all well and good, but there has to first be bread on the table, this is a hopelessly unaspiring and old-fashioned view. One could just as easily argue the exact opposite. That delicious meals can only be served once we have understood the depth of the world’s challenges and created companies that can solve them and make money doing so.
At the previously mentioned event, I witnessed that our youth are fortunately beginning to realize this. This is impressive in itself, because we have not helped them much in reaching these realizations through our education system. But they form new types of networks, where they make each other aware of these things.
The same young people also sought the combination of teaching mentioned, for example in programming and philosophy. In other words, we need to get to know the technologies of the future, but we must also think about what we want to achieve with them. Technology is just technology. It only becomes valuable and meaningful when we have sat down and thought carefully about what we’re going to do with it in the world. How it can make a major difference.
It also follows that all innovation and everything new is not automatically good. It is only when we look at things from a philosophical, anthropological, and ethical perspective that we can dissect the new knowledge and new opportunities, and actively and critically decide what we want to do with them. This is why the humanities should have a place much further along the food chain and in our mindset in the future.
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