Thursday, October 25, 2012

Any Hope for the Humanities in a Technological World?

Yes, lots, according to this article by Michael Malone in the Wall Street Journal (if you don't subscribe to the WSJ, type "How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities" into a search engine and open one of the links: that should give you complementary access to the article). Malone relates a story about  Santosh Jayaram, "the quintessential Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur", who visited his writing class. Instead of telling the students to switch majors, which is what Malone feared would happen, Jayaram said that "English majors are exactly the people I'm looking for."  It's apparently easy today to get the technical side of new products (such as iPhone apps) done: "that work can be contracted out to hungry teams of programmers anywhere in the world, who can do it in a couple of weeks."  What is difficult is to tell customers and investors such good stories that they can imagine the product already exists and how they might use it in their daily lives. Says Jayaram, "the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent." That's why he wanted to meet English majors, because they can tell stories.  But here's the good news for students in other majors, like history and political science:
"We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first-century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith."

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