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A Modest Proposal

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Between Inside Job, Margin Call, and, most recently, Greg Smith's public resignation from Goldman Sachs on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, business has been getting bad press of late -- to put it mildly. The notion of business as a predatory world in which customers are helpless prey has gained traction on the right (the Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street). Many Americans in the middle find the description convincing.

Having spent my life in academia, which has its own problems, I can't say whether business ethics have fallen to the extent that Mr. Smith claims. If so, it's not the first time. Walt Whitman once denounced America's "business classes" for their "depravity" and charged that their "sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain." That was nearly 150 years ago.

What I do know is that at the elite universities from which investment firms such as Goldman Sachs recruit much of their talent, most students are no longer seeking a broad liberal education. They want, above all, marketable skills in growth fields such as information technology. They study science, where the intellectual action is. They sign up for economics and business majors as avenues to the kind of lucrative career Mr. Smith enjoyed. Much is to be gained from these choices, for both individuals and society. But something is also at risk. Students are losing a sense of how human beings grappled in the past with moral issues that challenge us in the present and will persist into the future. This is the shrinking province of what we call "the humanities."

For the past twenty years, the percentage of students choosing to major in the humanities -- in literature, philosophy, history, and the arts -- has been declining at virtually all elite universities. This means, for instance, that fewer students encounter the concept of honor in Homer's Iliad, or Kant's idea of the "categorical imperative" -- the principle that Mr. Smith thinks is out of favor at Goldman: that we must treat other people as ends in themselves rather than as means to our own satisfaction. Mr. Smith was careful to say that he was not aware of anything illegal going on. But few students these days read Herman Melville's great novella, Billy Budd, about the difficult distinction between law and justice.

Correlation is not cause, and it's impossible to prove a causal relation between what students study in college and how they behave in their post-college lives. But many of us who still teach the humanities believe that a liberal education can strengthen one's sense of solidarity with other human beings -- a prerequisite for living generously toward others. One of the striking discoveries to be gained from an education that includes some knowledge of the past is that certain fundamental questions persist over time and require every generation to answer them for itself.

For example, my students are startled to discover that one of the earliest texts of American literature, a sermon delivered by the Puritan John Winthrop while en route to the New World, raised issues that remain as pertinent today as when Winthrop raised them nearly 400 years ago. With regard to unpaid debts, he asked, "What rule must we observe in forgiving?" His answer, drawn from both Old and New Testaments, was that the creditor must "quit that which he lent" if the debtor has no means to pay. Surely the present crisis over mortgage foreclosures makes that point more salient than ever.

I also find that more and more adults, many of them retired businessmen, are coming back at mid-life to audit the humanities courses they missed when they were in college. They come back not in order to earn a credential, but because they are looking to deepen their understanding of their own lives through encounters with great books, ideas, and works of art.
Perhaps we should take a hint from these "lifelong learners" (as my university describes them) and from the growing number of humanities programs in many hospitals where, as one participant wrote about the value of reading and discussion, "surgeons commune with nurses... secretaries speak with equal voice to administrators; laboratory technicians give their viewpoint to obstetricians" -- all with the effect of increasing respect for one another and for their patients.

What these busy professionals are doing is replicating the best kind of college experience-- small classes where students learn to listen, to speak with civility, and, with the help of classic writings, to open their minds to new ideas and perspectives.

Perhaps it would be a good idea for executives to sponsor similar internal discussions of ethics and responsibility organized around some of the books they didn't encounter in college. Such discussions could make it a little harder to treat clients as "muppets" (the derisive term in vogue at Goldman Sachs, according to Mr. Smith), or to measure their value by their susceptibility to what traders at Bankers Trust, back in the 1990s, called "Rip Off Factor," or "ROF."

No one can say that a revival of the humanities in, or after, college would ameliorate this kind of behavior. But surely it's worth a try.