David Phillips: ‘Book smarts’ has many practical benefits

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you,” James Mattis, the retired four-star general and former secretary of defense wrote in his memoir. “Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.”

The comment was a not-so-subtle swipe at President Donald Trump, who repeatedly claims he is too busy to read. The observation by Mattis has relevance now as Trump apparently used his gut, rather than his head, to make a critical decision in Syria, which is being criticized by many military leaders.

Yet, the broader point by Mattis has relevance in lives of ordinary people, not just leaders whose competency is a factor in protecting, or endangering, lives across the globe. Those people who have little use for books may be shortchanging their personal development.

It is a growing concern as many people, not just our president, say they are too busy to read.

Some may purposely disdain anything that may have the trappings of intellectualism or elitism. Others are sure all they need to know is available through the world wide web, not on the printed page. For others, that web has diminished their attention span so much that reading a book becomes a chore.

That push away from “book smarts” may be one reason our society has become so insular and divided. If people only use their gut to lead them, that isn’t broad enough, as Mattis notes, to sustain them in making competent decisions.

Perhaps that is why we have such irrational political discussions today or why so many people fall for obvious scams and believe made-up stories so divorced from reality.

More importantly, the lack of intellectual curiosity that leaves books on the shelves is why people know so little about history or other cultures, which is key to understanding, and getting along in, our world today.

It’s not just uneducated people who are backing away from books.

On U.S. college campuses, English majors are down by 25.5 percent since 2008, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s the biggest drop for any major tracked by the center in its annual data.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes have benefited, especially computer science and the health fields in which majors have nearly doubled from 2009 to 2017. The change, which has occurred since the recession in 2008, is likely due to the thought that STEM majors — or any majors outside the humanities — are more practical in today’s world.

Yet, that isn’t quite true. For example, many economists argue that storytelling has as important of a role in the social sciences as data does.

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller argues that storytelling is crucial in his field of economics. He recently wrote “Narrative Economics,” a book that opens with him reminiscing about an enlightening history class he took as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. What he learned about the Great Depression in that class was far more useful in understanding the period of economic and financial turmoil than anything he learned in his economics courses, he wrote.

“Traditional economic approaches fail to examine the role of public beliefs in major economic events — that is, narrative,” Shiller wrote.

Shiller is putting his theory into practice as he is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things, according to a story in the Washington Post. Shiller is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index.

Data also shows that abandoning the humanities might not be as smart of a move as many are led to believe. The National Center for Education Statistics, which also keeps track of pay and unemployment rates by major, shows that English majors ages 25 to 29 had a lower unemployment rate in 2017 than math and computer science majors.

While a typical computer science major makes more money shortly after graduation than the typical English major, pay evens out eventually. Harvard University researchers found that many graduates with humanities majors work their way into high-earning management positions while graduates in STEM majors start leaving their fields after about a decade when their skills become outdated in fast-moving technological careers.

Right now, it seems hard to imagine a future where books or the humanities come back to prominence, even by people who actually read books. However, it is heartening to know that military leaders, renowned economists and Harvard researchers have persuasive arguments in support of stemming the tide.