Why the humanities need to be saved

June 20, 2013: 4:14 PM ET

Who needs the humanities? The answer: We all do, including every American business leader who has even a shred of ambition.

By Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen

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FORTUNE -- As universities across the nation siphon money away from their English literature, history, and philosophy departments in favor of building more law school buildings and sports stadiums, more people are feeling comfortable asking a most ridiculous question: Who needs the humanities?

The answer: We all do, including every American business leader who has even a shred of ambition.

To that end, just yesterday, a major report on the humanities hit Capitol Hill. "The Heart of the Matter," a 61-page rallying cry for the increasingly endangered liberal arts, was distributed to every single member of Congress.

The report, commissioned by a bipartisan group of legislators and guided by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, aims to bring funding and focus back to the liberal arts. And for good reason: Never have the humanities been so embattled. According to the report, less than a quarter of 8th and 12th grade students are proficient in reading, writing, and civics. And a recent report from Harvard University estimates that the number of bachelor degrees earned in the humanities halved in the U.S. between 1966 and 2010, declining from 14% to 7% of all undergraduate degrees earned in that period.

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What is the return on investment of time spent reading Bertrand Russell, say, or Pushkin? The report's answer: a great deal.

According to "The Heart of the Matter," three out of four employers want schools to "place more emphasis on the skills that the humanities and social sciences teach: critical thinking and complex problem solving, as well as written and oral communication."

Companies like Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), and IBM (IBM) are calling for a deeper understanding of consumer behavior. Whether they are naming their approach "customer-centric," "patient-centric," or "user-centric," thousands of businesses are now betting their future on the ability to get close to consumers. Using touchy-feely phrases like "customer intimacy" and "empathic connections," business leaders are now trying to convince their employees that understanding people and their cultures is the key competitive strategy.

The "Heart of the Matter" articulates something that liberal arts graduates have always known: Workers trained in the humanities are better at understanding the worlds of others than students of the hard sciences. Historians know how to understand, say, the culture of the German military class circa 1914. They begin by piecing together facts, notes, photographs, and other artifacts from that time. Slowly, they form an interpretation, a way of entering empathically into the world. If you want to know what it was like to live in France in the 1920s, for example, an art history major will walk you through the paintings and sculptures of the period. By following the lines of a brushstroke or looking at a rendering of one single shaft of light, you will gain something that no amount of hard data will ever provide: a perspective.

These skills -- understanding the worlds and cultural perspectives of others -- are the same skills you need to imagine the life of a family in west China setting out to buy their first PC or a twentysomething Brazilians seeking out "wellness" and healthy food choices. An Intel chip designer can be an exemplary technologist, but what good will it do him if he has no sense of how people in Indonesia -- or Russia or Mexico or North Dakota, for that matter -- use a laptop? Pharmaceutical companies can develop cutting-edge diabetes drugs, but how will they sell them if they have no understanding of why some cultures refuse to take certain medicines?

In the past, students sought out training in the liberal arts because it offered a more expansive way to live and engage with the world. Today, this same education should be considered job training, an imperative for both corporations and nations to remain competitive in the 21st century. In fact, a 2008 research paper from Vivek Wadhwa, Richard B. Freeman, and Ben Rissing surveyed 652 U.S.-born Silicon Valley CEOs. Only 37% had degrees in computer technology or engineering and only 2% held them in mathematics. The remaining CEOs had degrees from within the widest range of the liberal arts. With the decline in humanities degrees, where will the next generation of Silicon Valley leadership come from?

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"The Heart of the Matter" exhorts us to take this question seriously. The hard sciences continue to show us what the world is made of and why things happen the way they do, but the humanities helps us to understand why it matters. Though the humanities are arguably our oldest form of social technology, we need them to connect all of us to the changes of the current century. Never have they felt so relevant and so cutting edge.

Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen are senior partners at ReD Associates, a strategy and innovation consulting firm based in the human sciences. 

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