Last month, columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed run by the Salt Lake Tribune called “Why people in literature, media, don’t understand business.” Unfortunately, the full text of the article is no longer available.
I’m a fan of Brooks’ writing, but the article bothered me a little. Brooks’ point was that the skills required of a CEO do not call for a well-rounded person, but rather someone with the ability to focus singly on the job.
He has a point. (The unwillingness of the literati to let go of the Oxford comma may also be a factor.)
This admission made me take a step back to reconsider my own views on the subject of literature and the workforce. I’ve always been a strong believer in the practical value of the liberal arts. But look where I am: working part time, getting ready to return to academia in pursuit of a job that will require me to divide my attention between those who love literature and those who just want to pass the class.
So is that it? Should academia and corporate America go their separate ways, each graciously conceding the theoretical significance of the other sector, but remaining largely disparate from it?
I have to say no.
At the risk of shooting myself in the foot, I’ll concede: reading Jane Eyre may do little for your day-to-day leadership skills. And yet learning has to start somewhere.
I was browing the Internet a few days ago when I found a blog post from the Acton Institute. The author begins by admitting, “I don’t read very fast.” He goes on:
…it’s amazing to me that with all the hope and change being discussed and voted on in Congress these days, that the laws being proposed and voted on — laws, some of which we can down load in massive pdf files — have been read and inwardly digested by the elected representatives who will vote on our behalf. […] some of these proposed laws are over a thousand pages long.
He then asks the challenging question,
…how did the Founders manage to get a country going with a document we can still read over a cup of coffee?
More words doesn’t mean better ideas. It does, however, make mindlessness easier, particularly if one has little experience decoding complex texts.
Reading, like any other skill, requires practice. Critical thinking requires even more. In “An Examination Into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution” (1787), Noah Webster wrote this:
In the formation of our constitution the wisdom of all ages is collected–the legislators of antiquity are consulted, as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. It short, it is an empire of reason.
David Brooks may be right when he concludes that today’s CEO does not need literature. He may be right that people in literature fail to understand business. (I’ll be the first to raise my hand.)
Perhaps, though, the problem lies in the fact that both sides need to redefine their priorities. For the literati, that may involve a descent from the ivory tower. For the CEOs, that may involve an occasional step away from the bottom line. I dare say both parties, myself included, would find themselves better off for the experience.