As some of you may have heard, humanities education is in something of a crisis. University enrolment in such subjects is in free fall, and many are now questioning what the point of studying literature, philosophy, history, etc. is, in comparison to practical STEM disciplines.
This topic may seem outside of our purview here, but actually, I think that the struggles of the humanities have direct relevance to our own efforts to develop our strategic thinking. This is because they have made a critical error to which we are all vulnerable – and so if we become aware of it here, then perhaps we can avoid the same fate.
Emphasising criticism over appreciation.
Let me explain.
The concept of an education in the humanities – or the liberal arts – is quite fascinating, and something I’d never thought about until I read it the other day. It can basically be summarised as “studying how to be human”.
This was the driving logic that led to the establishment of many great universities in the first place. Their aim was to gather together all the great insights humanity has arrived at over thousands of years, drink them in, and apply them to our lives in the here and now. By learning to appreciate Aristotle, Shakespeare, and co, we could become more fully-fledged human beings. Wiser, more considered, and better able to navigate the waters of life.
Recently, however, the aim of a humanities education has changed somewhat. Thanks to the emergence of various new forms of academic discourse, the focus has now shifted: from appreciation of these classic texts, to criticism.
If we’re being trite about it, we might say that the typical exam question has inverted as follows:
Old humanities: “Tell me why this text is great”
New humanities: “Tell me why this text is shit”
Now from an academic perspective, I’m sure this new logic is both rich and valid. Certainly, there are many criticisms that can be thrown at even the greatest thinkers, their finest works, and of course the times from which they emerged. However, there is one crucial drawback to this form of scholarship:
The way it trains us to think.
Put simply, old humanities education trained people to seek out the good in things and to extract insights from which they might learn and develop. Old humanities help develop strategic thought. New humanities however train people to look for what’s wrong, to tear things down, and thus disregard those insights.
Although these are both relevant lines of enquiry, from a personal development perspective there is no contest: the observer who looks for the value in things will develop a far greater mental “toolbox” than will the critic.
Perhaps this is why the popularity of these subjects has eroded so drastically: students simply don’t get as much out of learning to be critics as they did from learning to appreciate.
Whether you have personally been educated this way or not, I do think it’s undeniable that a fondness for criticism has deeply permeated our culture. To be able to make a withering assessment of whatever crosses our path – be it a book, a film, a brand, an article, you name it – certainly offers an adolescent satisfaction, and a momentary spike of status. But it is not what furnishes the strategic mind.
The strategic mind seeks patterns and systems which unlock effective action.
In other words, it seeks ideas which work.
To do this, it needs to be able to isolate what is strong and good in that which it observes; like a magpie spotting a glint of foil on the ground below. This means acknowledging that such good qualities are present in pretty much everything – especially those things that gain a certain degree of traction.
If you manage to internalise this, then you’ll have a rare power: the power to spot genius everywhere, to extract it, and to bottle it for yourself.
It’s not easy. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find yourself often tempted by the critical instinct. But try and resist. Pick some things – some ideas, some people, some texts – that you absolutely hate, and do yourself a favour: figure out what they get right. What makes them work. What they hold that is truly of value.
Get in this habit, and the rewards can be extraordinary. Far more so than the momentary thrill of the withering put down.