Accounting for Poets -- and Pundits

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David Brooks is right to defend the humanities major, but neither he, nor I, nor anybody else has yet developed a fully persuasive justification:

When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can't indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.

So it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.

Of course this is not such a new opposition; think of Cynthia Ozick's unhappy summer stint with "Margate, Haroulian."

But who says accounting itself can't be a humanistic subject? Its history is also the story of cultural practices and the evolution of politics, commerce, and technology. The glories of Venetian art depended on the Republic's sea power, and my colleague Luca Zan has done major work on the Venetian Arsenal as the birthplace of modern management. Professor Michael Power of the LSE is a theorist of risk with philosophy as well as finance degrees, and Emory University Professors Gregory Waymire and Sudipta Basu study the archaeological record to establish accounting's role in making the first complex societies possible. There are Marxist and Foucauldian accounting theorists, and there is even a spiritual side to the profession, represented by the Rev. Keith McMillan SJ


The humanities can be, and too often are, pursued as the "systematic abuse of a terminology invented for the purpose," as a joke in the field goes. But apparently technical subjects like accounting and engineering have deep ethical aspects. The real problem isn't the lack of curricular balance; I'll bet many of the investment bankers who helped produce the current crisis actually took excellent humanities courses. It's that in practice, and in many accounting courses and programs, pure technique has too often crowded out values -- ironically, because computerization was supposed to let professionals move from routine to the big picture. The "going is tough," in Mr. Brooks' phrase, in part because too many accountants didn't.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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