Oh, the Humanities!
The liberal arts have gotten a bad rep. As the joke goes, “What’s the most important question that Philosophy majors need to learn to ask?” Answer: “Would you like fries with that?”. This isn’t the best trend for society.
Conventional wisdom, especially in light of the startup culture that has overtaken the world, is that hard skills like programming and engineering will rule the day. Pres. Obama has been pushing STEM education initiatives and schools are now being evaluated on the quality of their computer science classes. Nowhere is this enthusiasm felt more than in the tech investing world. We prize technical CEOs who can “talk dirty” in the language of code. We want the visionaries who can both spot seismic technology shifts and also understand the underlying science.
So far so good. Yet this blog, ostensibly about the EdTech world, Venture Capital / Private Equity, and the intersection of technology and finance more broadly, goes out of its way to incorporate the humanities. Why do I post thoughts on books that I’ve read? Especially when these books never directly pertain to the tech or finance worlds?
It’s not just self-indulgence that makes me write about my favorite books. It’s a firm belief that the humanities are vital to our ability to advance society. Books (and cinema and music and art and the theater and all the “liberal arts”) don’t necessarily make us better people, but they show us how we live today and what to do if we want to change anything.
That’s great! Why?
The simple answer is that the liberal arts form the foundation of society. They color the way we perceive the world. They tell us what we expect from society, from others, and from ourselves. They tell us what is acceptable and what isn’t and to what extent we want to ignore the former in favor of the latter.
Let’s move out of the abstract. Facebook could not have been built in China. Between coming up with the idea, to convincing yourself that it’s something that your community needs, to recruiting teammates to this vision, to finding investors, to expanding across schools, and finally, to counting as users 2/3rds of the population of the United States – for every one of those elements to have occurred, Facebook needed the humanities. The humanities created an ingrained societal mindset that accepts the basic premise that people ought to be able to share deeply personal information with each other and engage with it in a public forum.
It’s the same thing with Twitter. The idea that people need access to instantaneous news, the desire for people to connect to people on the most mundane and elevated levels – those ideas are a direct result of Western society’s emphasis on openness and connection. And those values come through cultural dialogues determined and shared through philosophers like Immanuel Kant and John Locke, through poets like Pablo Neruda, T. S. Eliot, and Walt Whitman, and even through phenomena like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live.
Secondly, the liberal arts teach us how to think. Engineering is about solving problems. Math – same thing. Chemistry, Physics, and Biology focus on systems which can be reduced to equations if only you can find the right ones.
The liberal arts are about finding structure in ostensibly unstructured narratives. They’re about uncovering messages in multi-layered stories. They force you to break apart material from how it’s presented and then rediscover it in other ways. The liberal arts, just as STEM subjects, are about arguably the single most important skill that people can possibly develop – pattern matching.
There’s no hierarchy in my mind as to which promotes critical thinking better. But contrary to the current zeitgeist in education policy, I do think we are de-emphasizing the liberal arts to a dangerous amount.
I catalogue books and my reactions to them to maintain my pulse on that critical “pattern-matching” skill. At work, I’m constantly pattern matching. When looking for new, investable companies, work is about analyzing how CEOs present their products, market, and the problems they’re solving. I compare each new company to other similar ones to find what’s different, what’s similar, and what is going to create separation. When figuring out valuation, it’s about building a comparable company set based on similar patterns of end customers, revenue growth, market dynamics, and sustainability, and then using the differences to determine price.
But work is deceptively hard. You can find yourself in a rut by pattern matching on the most basic level. Comparable companies? Easy – everything in the same industry. Everything with the exact same growth rates. Everything with similar margins.
True separation comes from thinking differently. Thinking differently requires you to pattern match on a higher level. Find the unobvious comparisons.
That’s where reading comes into play. Every book I read brings a deluge of comparisons, most of which are nonsensical, the product of random firing of neurons in my brain. My favorite moments are when I recognize something in passages that I’ve seen somewhere else. Isolation and powerlessness in Murakami and Russo. Separating word from meaning in Borges and Wallace Stevens. Ascribing value to writing in Jansma and Vargas Llosa.
Those ideas aren’t immediately obvious but they’re great bones for me to chew on over extended periods of time. And, reveling in the new connections I’ve made – new patterns uncovered – I’m unconsciously sharpening my second-level pattern matching skills by rewarding unconventional thinking.
Conclusion, or, why everyone should start reading post haste
It should go without saying, enjoying the humanities doesn’t just mean reading books. Great drama, great cinema, great music, great art – all of the above are crucial to honing your pattern matching skills. What you’re looking for is any output that encourages you to remove messages from their context and try to recreate or reinterpret them in a different one.
Much of what I read are inexpressibly beautiful attempts to share stories of the human condition. There’s reason enough in that to read them, even without this focus on pattern matching, I have no doubt that I’d be captivated by words, phrases, and themes across all of them. I’d enjoy being challenged to think about different cultures, different challenges, different world views to which I have no other way of being exposed.
But it’s hard not to appreciate the value of reading in a more practical sense as well. I’d be remiss not to mention a great blog post by Jose Ferreira on this subject. (Jose Ferreira is the CEO of Knewton, one of the most exciting EdTech companies out there today.) Jose’s money quote is this:
One of our data scientists, John Davies, studied English at Harvard. He finds his education directly relevant to his job: “I wrote my thesis on Paradise Lost. One crucial skill I developed while studying literature, and especially while writing my thesis, was extracting structure from complicated systems. And that’s exactly what I do here – try and find the fundamental structures that explain how education works.”
Even if I haven’t inspired anyone to run to their nearest bookshelf and grab their new best friend by the spine (wow that phrase came out weirdly), hopefully the rationale here makes sense.