In our complex and interconnected world, we need leaders of imagination, understanding, and emotional intelligence—men and women who will move beyond polarizing debates and tackle the challenges we face. To cultivate such leaders, we must value and invest in the humanities.
Art, literature, history, and other branches of the humanities are vital for developing our emotional intelligence—essential to understanding ourselves and others. They help us grapple with uncertainty, understand complexity, and empathize.
Consider what happens when you read a novel. Engrossed in the narrative, you are invited to imagine the world from a character’s perspective. You think about the interplay between a person’s desires and her actions. When you listen to music, go to the theater, or visit a museum, you have an emotional response—one that connects you with other people and new perspectives.
We develop our emotional intelligence—and learn skills of empathy, imagination, and understanding—through the humanities. These skills, if cultivated, enable leaders to respond successfully to challenges and opportunities in every sector. Our scientists are better at their work if they read literature; our diplomats and our generals are more effective when they understand languages; our data scientists are able to think beyond algorithms when they experience art and music.
Around the world, we can see the gains of globalization. Debates continue, however, about how to promote more inclusive and equitable growth, embracing a diversity of peoples and cultures and respecting the environment.
The humanities must be part of this conversation. Leadership on these difficult issues demands understanding more than the bottom line; it requires an appreciation of all that makes life meaningful and complete.
As Lei Zhang, a successful business leader and Yale alumnus, said, “The humanities are fundamental to reason. Isolating data and technology from the humanities is like trying to swim without water; you can have all the moves of Michael Phelps, but you still won’t end up getting anywhere.”
The humanities provide the context—the possibility of real understanding—for all that the future promises.
Despite the promise of technology to connect people, too often we remain isolated in our own narrow circles. Joining the humanities with new digital tools can help us reach across divides—through time and space—and allow more people to explore our rich cultural resources.
We have been here before. In 1939, as war raged in Europe and Asia, Yale President Charles Seymour worried that the liberal arts would be neglected. Although the public did not think they were “useful,” Seymour was convinced the humanities were indispensable. “Without them,” he wrote movingly, “the heritage of the human experience is impoverished.”
Excerpts from an article by Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, World Economic Forum.