Don’t Want a Robot to Replace You? Study Tolstoy
Now admittedly, you have to have technical chops to get hired at Google, but having those undervalued soft skills makes a difference the long run makes, and studying art and literature helps cultivate them. By contrast, studies suggest that studying economics reduces empathy.
Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, is an economist. Gary Saul Morson, his colleague, does close readings of Tolstoy. Together they teach a course on what economists can learn from the humanities and have co-authored a book, Cents and Sensibility, on the same theme.
Use psychological pricing methods.
Morton Schapiro: Economists do a good job applying our theories and tools to subjects that are normally associated with other fields, such as the cycle of poverty, individual behavior, and so on. But there’s evidence in citations and surveys that economists approach other fields in a more imperialistic way than they probably should.
Saul points out that there’s an idea that other fields have the great questions and economists have the all the answers. Economics brings a lot to these other fields, but these other fields could bring a lot more to economics. One that’s far-flung from what economists usually think of as a basis for useful knowledge is literature.
Some things can only be explained by stories, like great novels. Ethical questions can be endlessly complex, which is a central theme of great authors like George Eliot. The realistic model of people you get in literature is a lot closer to what people really are like than what you often find in economics.
Demonstrate the differences
By the very nature of needing to mathematicize their theories, economists can’t account for some things. You can’t mathematicize culture. A lot of theories covertly smuggle in certain cultural assumptions, like the notion that everybody is like an American. But everybody is not. What looks like an economic model turns out to be a cultural model, and cultures really do differ.
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Literature is particularly important because you identify with people very much unlike yourself, from different cultures, genders, backgrounds. You learn to empathize and get out of the natural narrowness and egoism of thinking everybody is like yourself.
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You get constant practice at it. There’s no way to read Tolstoy without extending empathy on page after page with one character or another. You learn to turn your critical intelligence on your own favorite assumptions. That’s what higher education needs to include.