Susan Frost, “Counterintuitive Humanities Brings Surprises”

Note: This post originally appeared in THE ARTS & HUMANITIES IN THE 21ST CENTURY WORKPLACE.

A new kind of capitalism is being heralded in business journals throughout the world. “Conscious Capitalism” and “Inclusive Capitalism” are but two of the new buzz terms in re-examining capitalism in the 21st century. At the same time, academia is being admonished for inadequately preparing students for a 21st century workplace – a place which, in fact, we know little about. Combine this assault on education with the teach-to-the-test modality and the educational world becomes a tangle. Consider this: Thirty years ago it was impossible for universities to prepare students for the high-tech age in which we now live, a life we could little imagine then and in retrospect, most of these ideas now appear naive. However, those who thrived were the innovative and the adaptive. Where do we go for answers: The Humanities.

The Humanities as a business course? How can that work? The development of a new on-line course called Humanities, Business and Critical Thinking raised eyebrows and that response was not confined to academic colleagues, to business people or for that matter, to students. The best way to describe the reaction is confused skepticism because there is no way these topics appear to fit together in any reasonable fashion – or is there? What if we probed the Humanities for relevance, how would that look? The University of Wisconsin – Green Bay has a tradition of fresh approaches to learning and this is no exception.

These two disciplines appear to be oppositional, in fact, downright antagonistic. Yet, when the Humanities are used to provide a new entre into business thinking in the 21st century workplace seeking management, leadership and negotiating principles, it becomes a transformative course for students. Two ideas form the foundation of the course, first, if it happened once, it may very well happen again – that is the human condition and that is insightful in forward thinking. Secondly, stories and literary works are comprehensive and provide readers with an opportunity to see the big picture and the far reaching implications of decisions.

Now three semesters old, the class, which is designed primarily for working adults, opens exciting and innovative discussion as students bring their personal work experiences to bear in discussions. Even more exciting, they immediately take their course work to work with them. “I bring the course conversations to the lunch room and my co-workers are fascinated by the ideas,” noted a student at the close of the spring course. He is not alone; this is the norm. Students regularly bring new attitudes, perspectives and approaches to their workplace, their careers and their families using the principles taught by reading the Humanities for relevance.

Repeatedly the course questions how the readings apply, what is the take away, and how the writings of authors such as Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and even Herman Melville can bring new perspectives and ideas to the workplace. After building a foundation of theory in the first course modules, the course shifts to the practical phase thematically approaching business concepts through novels, short stories, plays and films. Through discussion posts, students explore the various sides of labor and management, points of view and their potential conflict, the art of negotiation, the effects of the retail marketplace, the establishment of the white collar and blue collar worker in modern society, class structure and economic fall-out, cultural diversity and finally, the long-term and long-lasting effect of bad management.

How does this work? The course composition, a series of novels, essays, films and even art, provides students with critical reading of texts that evoke lively discussions. Daniel H. Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” with his concepts of story, symphony and empathy effectively provide the ground work for examining the situations that arise in literature. Understanding the far reaching effects of business decisions stay with students as they begin applying the theoretical principles examined in Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant and Pink. Symphony, that the components of business must work together, allows them to step back and be effective thinkers. What are the qualities of a good leader or negotiator, for example. Good managers understand how to help employees use their talents effectively and empathy gives them a useful perspective. As a manager, one doesn’t have to agree, but it is important to understand how to help employees do their best.

Other classic works addressed a spectrum of workplace challenges. For example, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the foundation for a powerful discussion of the far-reaching consequences of bad management and the balance of family and career. In a story by Sui Sin Far, the Japanese American writer of the early twentieth century, the discussion revolves around global perspectives, negotiating and immigration. Once again immigration is a consideration of Upton Sinclair’s classic, “The Jungle”. Interestingly, that novel so tapped out in high schools for its exposé of the food industry is equally, if not more interesting, when incorporated into a discussion of labor and economics. It becomes the foundation of productive conversations on the fundamentals of blue collar structures, labor and management practices and the principles of big-business.

As citizens of a consumer-driven society, the origins of the modern marketplace, come to life in the complicated novel of Emile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames which unpacks marketing strategies, advertising and how retail changes opened the door to modern city life. Here students have an opportunity to see the far reaching effects of change that we continue to study in business by looking at a more comprehensive picture of one segment of life alters a society.

The “learning outcomes” found in the applied Humanities are numerous and continue to evolve. Each class produces new perspectives and tackles new situations simply because in seeking relevance in a changing world, the texts offer new perspectives. “Thinking Through the Humanities” provides a solid foundation for critical thinking and innovation.

Susan Frost is president of Frost Marketing Communications, Inc., De Pere, Wisconsin and an Associate Lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Frost also gives workshops in critical thinking based in the Humanities.

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