The humanities help us understand our actions and reimagine our reality

Even business leaders can benefit from the arts as they expand our emotional intelligence

Federiciana Room, the ancient reading room of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Lombardy, Italy. Copyright Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
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In Hermann Hesse's novel Journey to the East, his protagonist HH, a member of a religious sect, ponders: "It seemed that, in time, all the substance from one image would flow into the other and only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear". Why he has to disappear for Leo, the sect's leader, to grow is a matter of interpretation and speculation. This is the beauty of literature and the humanities in general; they allow different minds to reconfigure information in many ways. For many, Hesse's novel is about servant leadership, where individuals are encouraged to put their egos aside for the service of their communities. By suppressing their egos for the benefit of those they serve, they become indispensable individuals and de facto leaders. But this interpretation is not the only one. Hesse could well mean the opposite too – that egotistic leaders deem it necessary to suppress all those around them to grow.

Marcel Proust, the famous French novelist, asserted that certain truths about the human being can be told only in literary form because they require emotional intelligence to uncover and understand. Literature invites us to imagine multiple possibilities and challenges us to reconsider some of our beliefs and assumptions.

In Sandor Marai's Portraits of a Marriage, for example, we learn the same facts about a dissolved marriage from three different perspectives. With each narrative – from the husband, the wife and the mistress – we find ourselves changing our allegiances and forging empathy with each of the characters. We become more tolerant and less judgmental. Reality remains unchanged and objects remain the same but our judgment of these becomes more fluid and we view the facts through different configurations. The humanities are important fields of practice in this regard because they deal with the human condition. They tell us about the sad, the comic and the absurd.

But in the mid-1990s, a major shift in the economy took place. Technology-driven economic growth induced a strong interest and demand for Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills. This came at the expense of the humanities and liberal arts. More women, in particular, began to enrol in Stem fields, leading to a decline in take-up of the humanities; add to that the industrialisation of university education and what it has entailed in terms of market orientation and commodification. To compete, universities and students pursued the false assumption that a humanities degree had far less employment potential than one in the Stem subjects. This meant some universities moved resources away from humanities and towards Stem subjects, reducing training opportunities in understanding human consciousness. Meanwhile, standardisation of curricula made university education more like a commodity; something off-the-shelf and downloadable. The result was a steady decline in humanities' training and the over-production of exam-ready individuals who were, to borrow a line from Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, "all on one pattern, and all precious rubbish".

"Literature is unbelievably helpful, because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships. It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick," argued Michael Eisner, Disney's former chief executive, in a 2001 interview with USA Today.

Literature also helps us understand the extreme and the outlier, the deviations that aggregate data cannot explain. Beyond literature, the humanities at large can be a fertile ground for leadership. We know this from the data we have on the educational backgrounds of business leaders of publicly traded companies in the US. While humanities-trained leaders are in a minority, history, psychology and philosophy are three major fields of training that often give rise to top corporate leadership, especially in consumer products’ industries.

These are fields of knowledge that provide us with insights and explanations for what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “the landscape of consciousness: what those involved in the action know, think or feel, or do not know, think or feel”. We currently see an explosion of interest in design-based tools and techniques aimed at understanding how consumers, users or citizens think and feel. To do so, design innovators use tools and methods grounded in ethnography, anthropology and behavioural sciences. Leadership training in business schools often draws on stories from history and fiction, deploys concepts and notions borrowed from psychology and uses drawings and artefacts from the arts.

Today, more than ever, the humanities are vital. They are arguably our last bastions against dogma, automation and the artificialisation of everything. They are also our collective consciousness, the glue and bond between different groups, classes and members, both within society and across societies. More importantly, given their deep dive into the human condition, the humanities represent the infinite frontier of discovery, innovation and creativity. In this regard, they are instrumental in keeping humans as the drivers of artificial intelligence rather than the other way around; as HH says in Journey to the East, we have "faith in the meaning and necessity of our action". And action, as the American psychologist Jerome Bruner said, is the final common path based on what one knows and feels. Humanities help us understand the emotions and thoughts that rationalise our actions and configure our realities.

Sami Mahroum is director of the innovation and policy initiative at Insead in Abu Dhabi