The eco-system of knowledge development in the modern university is a permanent fascination to me. A key feature of this eco-system is the mix of discovery versus application that occurs.
Some scholars within the academy are totally curiosity-driven. They find themselves interested in an issue and begin to use their discipline’s perspective to explore it. They are driven to seek an answer to the motivating question. Rarely are they interested in any day-to-day applications of their work.
Other research efforts seek a solution to a practical problem. The researchers are made aware of an unsolved problem and seek to apply knowledge to discover and test a solution to the problem. This is the movement from the lab to the clinic in a biomedical context. It is the move from a classroom experiment to a whole school curriculum reform. It is the move from the engineering lab to a real-world build-out.
There are some academics who move back and forth between curiosity driven scholarship and real-world applications. In my estimation, there are few who do both well.
Some of the current discussion about the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, on one hand, and the job market, on the other, gets conflated with issues of theory and application. The humanities often get labeled as purely curiosity-driven exercises. From that observation, some commentators then extrapolate that the humanities have no value in today’s job market.
In this regard, I read with interest a recent interview of the investor Bill Miller, a man who achieved unusual success designing and running investment funds. Miller is an ABD in philosophy at Hopkins. The interview focused on how he reconciled his great success in financial markets with his humanistic studies.
He reported that “Philosophy steered me away from confirmation bias. In any philosophical assessment, you’re trying to figure out the validity of an argument, working to pinpoint ways to make it stronger. You’re not necessarily trying to win an argument, and you’re not taking an adversarial position. You’re really trying to look at things from a wide variety of perspectives.”
A mind that approaches an unsettled issue with a pure disinterest in the final resolution is truly liberated to find new solutions. Miller believes that he acquired those cognitive skills in his philosophy courses. Those skills, in his belief, were key to choosing companies for his investments. One gets the impression that it was his ability to remove emotion from his assessments that was key to his taking different perspectives on the same investment possibility. The ability to attack the same set of facts from different perspectives permitted him to detect the potential value of a new investment opportunity in ways that a traditional approach would not.
Further, the skill in deep analysis of information, dissecting it, reassembling its components in different ways, led to his success. Miller claims the habits of mind that his philosophical study gave him provided superior tools in his investment management life.
He predicts that these skills will be some of the scarcest resources in the future. Young people, aspiring to leadership in the new world, should strive to acquire them.