As a liberal arts college, Barnard is known for its long-standing focus on the humanities and increasingly for its STEM programs, like the new computer science program. The College also stands out for Beyond Barnard — the office that has successfully advised students through internships, graduate and professional schools, and jobs and has assisted alumnae with mentoring, fellowships, career-shifts, and more — led by dean of Beyond Barnard A-J Aronstein. An inaugural member of the office in 2018, Aronstein is also senior advisor to the Provost & Dean of the Faculty, Linda A. Bell. 

Given Aronstein’s experience — which includes advising more than 1,000 students during his time at Barnard, convening an advisory council ​​of Barnard alumnae and parents, and assembling a staff of 17 who provide personalized career development resources — it’s no surprise that he was tapped to co-write a chapter on why “Why We Need Humanities in Business” for the recently published book Humanizing Business: What Humanities Can Say to Business.

“In this chapter, we will argue that business organizations undermine their own nature when they exempt themselves from considering humanistic questions about enterprises and the roles of individuals that comprise them,” Aronstein and his co-writer, Fordham University ethicist Santiago Mejia, write in the chapter’s introduction. To learn what Aronstein means by “humanizing business,” read his Break This Down interview below.

What was the inspiration behind the chapter you co-wrote on the need for businesses to bring in the humanities? 

Beyond Barnard Dean A-J Aronstein
Beyond Barnard Dean A-J Aronstein

So much that’s written about the value of the humanities feels like a cage match pitting English majors against STEM majors, or capitalists against philosophers. It’s as if you can only be financially successful if you major in business or a science field or that you can’t possibly be an ethical person if you work on Wall Street.

The truth is that having antagonistic relationships between fields of knowledge limits intellectual possibilities for everyone involved. And yet a lot of people pay their bills perpetuating these academic forever-wars, scaring undergraduates who want to study art history, or condemning anyone who pursues an MBA as morally bankrupt. When you read enough of this stuff, it all starts to sound the same. I’ve been interested in finding out real ways — not just platitudes about cross-disciplinary hand-holding — that rigorous humanistic thinking provides essential insights in other fields.

What inspired this chapter was the connection that Santiago Mejia and I developed over the course of our decade-long friendship. He’s an ethics professor at Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business, and I run the career center at Barnard. These are not necessarily the kinds of places where people might assume they’d find a philosophy Ph.D. and a recovering comparative literature major. But it’s not like we had to check our humanist credentials at the door. 

At their core, the humanities help us ask fundamental questions about ethics, the good life, justice, equity, and identity. These questions are undeniably at the heart of many people’s search for meaningful work. This chapter was an attempt to articulate together — from the standpoint of our disciplinary perspectives and jobs — some ideas about the importance of core humanistic values for business.

How would you describe “humanizing business,” a term introduced in your chapter?

“Humanizing,” in the sense that Santiago and I use it, means inviting critical concepts valued by humanists — complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty — into dialogue with business considerations of productivity, profit, and shareholder value. We’re not arguing that the humanities will make business practices more humane. We’re not suggesting that the humanities can bring something like “the softer side of capitalism” into being. Do we want business actors to behave ethically? Yes! Do we want them to make decisions that advance justice? Absolutely! Do we think that such behaviors are merely a question of reading enough novels or knowing how to look at a painting? No. 

One way to think about what we’re suggesting is that the embrace of complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty represents the condition of possibility for ethical action in business settings. We’re talking about the intentional integration of a mode of thinking at the heart of humanistic scholarship as a social and ethical imperative that could advance productivity as well. 

The chapter notes a stark decline in humanities majors across higher education and a jump in business. What is behind that shift, and how is it affecting the marketplace and business as usual?

There’s so much trepidation about the stakes of one’s college major for lifelong career satisfaction and so little acknowledgment of the incredible range of variables that ultimately determine financial, intellectual, and personal success and well-being. This makes sense, as the cost of college continues to increase, and students are fearful about their capacity to find a return on investment in their education. Business programs have done a great job convincing huge numbers of students that the purpose of college is to secure the highest remuneration possible and that the surest way to financial success is a major in business.

But I think that many students make decisions about their field of study on the basis of flawed data and straight-up mythology about the connection between certain kinds of majors and financial success. Besides, studies have suggested that although business majors may earn more in their first jobs than their pals in the humanities programs, the humanists eventually catch up with or even surpass them. 

In my experience supporting thousands of students over my career, I’ve seen that one’s undergraduate major does not have a determinative effect on career success. Particularly at institutions like Barnard, with dedicated career support and a wealth of resources to encourage professional exploration, it’s not necessary to pick a major on the basis of a presumed career outcome. I constantly tell students they should follow their brain and their heart when picking a major. A major is important; it’s one’s intellectual home — some of my best friends today are from my college major and my humanities master’s programs — but it does not necessarily dictate the trajectory of one’s career.

What should students know about majoring in the humanities — and how it helps or hinders — before they join the workforce?

The career advisor in me says: To be a humanist is to traffic in incredibly complex arguments, and to develop the capacity to transact in prose that has nuance, clarity, and depth. To communicate like a humanist means having the capacity to present ideas forcefully, with respect to countervailing arguments, and to open oneself constantly to critical feedback as a means of improving ideas. To work like a humanist means having the ability to integrate a wide range of perspectives coming from different communities and identities, and to identify points of commonality. To think like a humanist means being able to manipulate qualitative and quantitative data in the interest of articulating defensible claims, and recognizing the value of the subjective, but defending one’s perspective with the best evidence available from whatever text(s) might be on the table.

But the humanist in me rejoins in a conspiratorial growl that lifelong dedication to this work — in college, in grad school, on the subway, in your work, at home with your kids — ultimately has nothing to do with the workforce. A decision to study the humanities should constitute a kind of wild, scary, and subversive act. Such dedication means that you choose to confront the bottomless uncertainty of life’s meaning through works of terrifying aesthetic beauty; to expose oneself voluntarily over and again to complex and heartbreaking questions about sacrifice, joy, loss, ecstasy, and pain; and to constantly come up short in understanding the intricacies of language or ever expressing oneself therein. To ask a humanist how their work “helps” a person is like asking how oxygen “helps” a person.

And if your boss doesn’t get that about you, well, then it’s my job to help you find a different boss.

Barnard experts explain.