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Investing In The Humanities' Material Future

Tonight I attended the Commonwealth Club's program "Living in the Material World: The Future of the Humanities" to see how the experts from California Humanities and Joint Venture Silicon Valley plan to save the liberal arts. I am intrigued with how data and technology now allow starving artists to prosper.

The humanities have always needed champions. Rich families like the Medicis were legendary for their patronage of the arts. The catch is that it took huge piles of wealth to sponsor a significant amount of art. The Commonwealth Club's panelists noted the gradual slide of the humanities in university life from a common language of civic engagement in the Middle Ages to an afterthought today. Turning the tide means advocates need evidence that the humanities matter in a modern economy.

The evidence for the humanities' commercial viability abounds. The AAC+U and NCHEMS released a report in January 2014 documenting the long-term viability of liberal arts degrees in the job market. Our Club panelists noted anecdotal evidence that senior business leaders hire liberal arts grads for the broad-minded soft skills that aren't taught in business schools. Check out the Council of Independent Colleges' Power of Liberal Arts for confirmation that the humanities add value in business. It looks like English majors offer way more than a punch line for sketches on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion.

One comment about successfully marketing museum visits to families was notable for what it implied about business. The tactic is viable because a live experience with loved ones is immediately shareable with what sociologists call an affinity group. Social media enables individuals to share their atomized experiences, but a photo of several family members allows sharing to instantly cross two or more affinity networks. Hey folks, that's the kind of business insight a non-humanities major like me brings to the table.

I am a fairly recent convert to the conversion of STEM education to STEAM, inclusive of the "A" for arts. I first noticed this change underway when I attended the Maker Faire Bay Area in 2013 and I was skeptical of its intent. I had gone from skepticism to acceptance at DesignCon 2014 because STEAM can prompt engineers to be more than linear thinkers. Technical domain experts increasingly realize that the STEAM paradigm incorporates the added value of the humanities.

There is enough room in the digital age for potentially unlimited attention to the humanities. The panel's Silicon Valley executive who performs commercially viable music after hours brings the quality focus and businesslike work ethic that the rest of the arts community should absorb. People working hybrid careers are the bridges between all of these worlds.

I still think some traditional academics will be very frustrated as MOOCs push traditional classroom education into obsolescence, regardless of whether Common Core's Socratic methods catch fire in classrooms. I'm pretty sure an AI avatar on a tablet can machine-learn its way through enough online interactions to make a simulacrum of Socratic instruction viable in MOOC curricula. I look forward to the first AI-driven MOOC platform that goes IPO. The humanities can finally enable money-making 21st Century enterprises.