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On the way out

Why businessmen should read Plato

Robin Williams inspiring his students in Dead Poets Society (1989)

Liberal arts students are in danger of becoming extinct, says Adrian Wooldridge in Bloomberg. In America, the number of undergraduates taking English or history at college has fallen by a third over the past decade. “We feel we’re on the Titanic,” an English professor at Harvard recently told The New Yorker. On the face of it, business people shouldn’t be bothered about this. “The world is being transformed by STEM rather than Jane Austen studies.” But in truth, the humanities have always been essential in the workplace. Putting on plays helps hone public speaking; studying the great authors tells you how to write a pitch to investors.

This is true now more than ever. The most exciting scientific advances are rubbing up against profound ethical questions. You don’t need an engineer to establish the limits of human gene editing, for example – you need a philosopher. The semiconductor industry “is being reshaped less by changes in Moore’s law than by superpower tensions”, so you need knowledge of politics and history. By obsessing over business theory rather than the wisdom of the humanities, executives are prioritising “deceptive certainties over fuzzy truths” – and it hasn’t gone well, given the level of “popular fury” over wealth inequality. Business schools should “throw out grappling hooks to the humanities departments”, and CEOs should overhaul their reading lists. “Better a chapter of Plato than a dozen treatises on supply chain management.”