Ryan Stelzer on the Humanities in Practice + Perish + Progress

I first met Ryan Stelzer over Zoom- he was giving a workshop on how the apply the humanities lens to the business world. His perspective struck me because he possessed a clear passion and understanding of humanities studies.

A graduate of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, this is no surprise. What is surprising, however, is the breadth of Ryan’s application of his humanities degree. From working in government to starting his own philosophy consulting firm and now coauthoring a book, Ryan sees and uses this knowledge as an asset in his work. He is contributing to a larger social movement in this process by helping to reimage how we perceive, judge, and operate within the corporate world.

For these reasons and many more, I asked Ryan to talk about the value of the humanities degree, the pitfalls of academics, and potential avenues for change.

a photo of a humanities major in a black shirt

Can we start by talking about the inhumanity of the humanities?

Ryan: “How much time do we have? When I was in graduate school, I saw talented grad students suffering in programs, stressed out and burn out by how the faculty were treating them, and for what? There is a boot camp feeling to graduate school, the impression that the professors are the drill instructors and students must run through hoops to come out better and stronger in the end.

“The difference is that boot camp lasts for 8 weeks and graduate school can last for 8 years. These are very different timelines, and it honestly seems like boot camp is much more controlled than graduate school is. There are protocols in place for how cadets or recruits are treated and it is all very structured. I’m sure it feels chaotic for the person going through the experience, but it is a very well-defined experience that has direct positive outcomes. For graduate school, I can’t count on one hand how many people I know who said they had an overall positive experience as a graduate student.”

Where is that coming from? Why do you think people end up with a negative experience, beyond the fact that they are worked like dogs?

“There’s a lot to unpack here, but first there is a blatant disrespect for the student. There was a friend of mine who went to Chicago to work with a specific professor, they were choosing between schools and chose Chicago because of this professor. The two communicated back and forth and the student secured this professor as their advisor and thought they were entering into the dream program with their dream advisor. This person came to campus and, soon after, this professor left Chicago to go to another institution—the same institution that the student declined admission to when choosing between that school and Chicago. The professor never told this student that they were going to switch universities and the student now had 8 years of graduate school ahead of them with no advisor—which, of course, having the right advisor is one of the most crucial aspects of graduate school.

“There may be a sadistic impulse by professors to put students through a grad program ‘as difficult’ as what they went through, but typically this backfires by making the future students work even harder, as one’s memory of the negative experience weighs more heavily than the experience itself. So it can create a downward spiral. It is also true that grad school is seen as a weeding out process. I feel like graduate school is hard enough as it is, so why not be a bit more supportive? It is a puzzling world, but yes, it is ironic that the humanities are often inhumane in their treatment of students.”

Are students unaware of how bad it gets?

“There was a meeting when I started at Chicago, they pooled all the Masters’ students and asked who thought they were going onto a Ph.D.; 98% of these students raised their hands. The Dean told us that the reality was that 10% of us will go into a Ph.D. program while most of us will go on to do other things. Me, being one of the people to go to do other things, at the time thought that I was going to be one of the 10%, as we all like to think. Admittedly, however, I went into graduate school because I liked what I was learning, I enjoyed the teaching aspect and I think it’s a great lifestyle– if you can stay within academia in a positive environment. It’s comfortable.

“There were a lot of people I knew, however, who were in graduate school because they did not know what else to do. They did not know what else they could or wanted to do, and graduate school became a fallback place to bid their time as they ‘figured it out.’ And that is what the college experience is supposed to be, the place where you figure out your interests. Graduate school is supposed to be more targeted, where you take your interests and, through your studies and classes, you become an expert on those interests. Yet in the early stages of a Master’s, many people seem to enter because they do not know what else to do and only know that they like the humanities or social sciences. They do not know what a career in these fields would look like, so they go to school to buy time.”

Do students know what a Ph.D. truly involves?

“The question I think is crucial to ask the student is: ‘For what reason are you applying to the Ph.D.? Is it because you want to continue with school and don’t know what to do after the master’s degree?’. I have a great piece of advice I received from a professor at Harvard who I was talking to. At the time I was dead set on getting my Ph.D. in philosophy, and he asked me, ‘How come?’

“And I replied, ‘You know, I love the subject and I’ve enjoyed studying it so far, so I’d like to continue my academic career in the field.'” 

“And he said, ‘Well, do you like music?’

‘Yes, I love music.’

‘So why don’t you get a Ph.D. in music, then?’

“And it was a great question: ‘Why are you studying philosophy? What is the reason, what is the motivation, behind it?’ And I didn’t have that answer. 

“At one point, I was airing my grievances about Ph.D. admissions with him, saying that it was arbitrary, based on sub-par markers like GRE scores, and was more akin to a luck of the draw than based on merit or reason. And this professor said to me that in all his time on the Ph.D. admissions committee, all of the faculty unanimously agreed on the applicants they admitted. There had not been one dissent on who were the most qualified students for the program.

“At the Ph.D. level, it is not only the academic credentials that matter, but it is also the level of specificity, it is the question and the quality of the project, and finally, it is a question of resources. Does the university have the right resources to support you in your Ph.D.—is it the right fit? Often, there are no faculty members that specialize in the topic that a Ph.D. candidate plans to study. And in these cases, the student would be better off somewhere else and they are often denied admission with this reality in mind.

“There is a lot of match-making in Ph.D. admissions as well, making it a convergence of obstacles: available positions, faculty, and resources. If you are considering the Ph.D. route, that’s wonderful, but first, understand what you are getting yourself into. If you do not have a good understanding as to why you are getting a Ph.D. in this subject, as opposed to a Ph.D. in music, then you need to do some introspection.”

How do you see the evolution of higher-education in the US?

“Education is becoming more accessible, and more and more people are pursuing higher-level degrees, which is wonderful. But college has become the new high school. When my parents were growing up, high school was the terminal degree and college was specializing. Now, college is largely where you stop school and anything beyond that is specializing. I even feel like we are getting to the point where a master’s degree is required for many jobs as we increase our standards of learning, skills, and education. Pretty soon, maybe we’ll all have Ph.D.”

I hope not.

“No, that would be scary. It does feel like a disruption is coming to the education world, however. COVID-19 disrupted how corporate office spaces work, forcing a change that has led to a more flexible model and less overhead cost, and there has not yet to be that disruption in academia. There are a lot of arbitrary rules, policies, and programs that no one has disrupted and it hasn’t changed as a result. I am hoping that it is not another global catastrophe like COVID-19 that disrupts Ph.D. programs, but maybe something will change that will make people say, ‘Do we need Ph.D. students here for 8 years, doing 3 or 4 postdocs and stretching out the tenure track into people’s 40s?’.”

A man in a suit who studies the humanities

Can you speak more to the relationship between the humanities and business?

“In the humanities and social sciences there is an oversupply of really smart, really hardworking people, and in the professional world there is a vacuum of those kinds of individuals, and they [these two worlds] need one another. But there is absolutely no connection right now between the two. The professional world is not looking at the humanities and social sciences for hiring candidates, by and large, and vice versa, colleges and universities are not yet adept at arguing and articulating the value of the humanities and social sciences degrees for the professional world. They can articulate the value of the humanities in and of itself, but it is slim pickings to find courses on campus teaching a student how to take Plato’s book The Republic and apply it to a corporate setting.”

Perhaps this is partly due to the anti-capitalism dissent found within humanities students?
It is a viewpoint I find odd because almost all of these students are passive consumers of capitalist goods, reaping the benefits of the market while remaining active Criticizers.

“This reminds me of Aristotle and virtue—I try not to talk philosophy in the corporate world, I’ve trained myself not to, but it seems like a great situation to tie this together. It comes down to the idea of virtue and living excellently and working excellently. There is a high-mindedness amongst academics to say, ‘I am above the idea of working for a bank, that is beneath me, ethically or morally. It is beneath my skills.’

“But actually, you have a deeper understanding of constructs like ethics and morality, virtue and trust, justice and piety, and all of these ideas are desperately needed within professional organizations. If you are someone who does not believe in capitalism, it will be a long road to argue that you should work at a bank, but I do agree with you, Sydney, that capitalism is by and large a force for good and has done a lot to alleviate poverty and hunger.

If you are open-minded about capitalism but think that capitalism needs reform– if you see capitalism as an ongoing improvement project—you can help it get better. Humanities students are uniquely capable of participating in this quality improvement project as it continues to unfold. They have a special skill set that can be applied within capitalist enterprises to help a firm perform at a higher level. For example, I am going to go work at Boeing and make sure that planes don’t fall out of the sky because someone else was trying to chase profits. It is okay if we make money, but I am going to make sure that passenger safety is prioritized as well.”

I agree, and to that example, I genuinely believe that the people at Boeing are not evil, but they made an ignorant decision that resulted in horrific tragedies— tragedies that could have been avoided if someone with another perspective was at those board meetings and regulating the impulses for strictly profit-focused decisions. 

“Ironically, the current mindset in corporations—the ideas that shareholder value is the most important priority of a company and that the sole goal is the maximization of profit—is relatively recent. It is only about 50 years old. In mid-20th century America, CEOs were paid a stable salary, and there were a lot of rogue CEOs who would go against the interest of the board, shareholders, and company ownership. So there was a shift in academic thinking, namely Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and, later, Michael Jensen at Harvard Business School, that decided to flip the script and said that a company should compensate CEOs as a percentage of shareholder earnings to align CEO interests with company ownership. Therefore, a CEO’s goal is no longer to keep the company alive for 20 years, their goal is to make as much money as possible for the shareholders and thus enrich themselves in the process. This occurred in the 70s and 80s, broadly, and has become a staple of business thinking. And that was an academic intervention—coming from the halls of academia and influencing the business world. Why has there not been a [converging] change in thought since then? With all the revealed shortcomings of this shareholder value thinking, it is time for a shift, and it is academics who are uniquely capable of influencing the professional world—they’ve done it before and they can do it again.”

a comic about shareholder value

Action is required to make this change happen. Action entails messiness, it means that one’s ideas can no longer be ideals, they must become good enough—they must become practical.

“There is a reluctance in academia to offer a solution, there is a lot of deconstruction of a problem and a tremendous analysis of a problem, but it is very light on solutions. The processes of academia and the sciences can place a premium on such hesitancies, with the emphasis on being accurate. But in the business world, it is always more vague and people fly by the seam of their pants more often. You put your ideas to work and see if it makes a positive impact, and if it doesn’t you make a change.

“Whereas in academia, that is not the mindset—academics say, ‘I am going to study this to such a degree that my eyes are bloodshot and I am pulling hair out of head, and I might not even come up with a solution for the problem I am studying.’ I hope that as academics read and write about problems, which they do quite well, they also come up with applied problem-solving.”

I think academics are often hesitant to speak because of a fear of not knowing enough, not being ready, not being right.

“It is a misapplication of the Socratic method. The point is to start from a place of ‘I know nothing’, then lean into learning and asking questions with openness and humility to try and address the problem. That is what Socrates did in his dialogues.

“Socrates did not say, ‘I know nothing so I am going to stop talking about it.’ It was instead, ‘I realize that my preconceived notions are incorrect, I know nothing about this, let’s form a meaning conclusion together.’ Let’s engage. A lot of academics come at this with, ‘I know nothing, so I’ve got to disengage.’” 

Or the engagement will mess with the way that I see my ideals. 

“But you need these kinds of people! Because the professional world is full of people who think they know, that is what they are trained to do. I did a case study once and in the directions it said, ‘If you do not know the answer to a question, you need to pretend that you know. You need to convince them that the answer you are giving them is the right answer, even if you know it is wrong.’ And that was so counterintuitive to what I had learned [studying philosophy]. And I don’t agree with that— I think it is a horrific thing to say and I think it is why we have a lot of egregious corporate malpractice, but that is all the more reason why we need humanities students in the professional world, to counterbalance the people who are there pretending to know. If you go to Booth and have a debate with a student there, a lot of them probably do not know what they’re talking about, but they will be very good at convincing you that they know what they are talking about.”

there is a space in-between where you can be confident that you don’t know. You don’t need to feel weak just because you don’t have the answer. There is a lot of power in remaining open and humble. 

“And that is a very powerful thing to say—just imagine if someone had said that in the Boeing board meeting before they decided to cut safety measures. That may have saved 400 lives. And it is an application of humanities thinking.”

And it comes from my time studying philosophy–and history for that matter. You know, we’ve made all these mistakes before. 

“When people talk about how unique this point in history is, like, ‘Wow what a weird convergence of events, this has never happened before.’ Yes, yes it has. None of this is new.  

“That was one of the most eye-opening experiences as a student. You think you have all these brilliant ideas and then you read a book that was written 100 years ago and realize someone else already had that idea. And that is what I love about the library because all of the ideas of the world are in there. The answers we need, or at least the discussions we are having, are already ongoing conversations.”

a man who studied humanities in university talks about his experience while wearing a suit and a pink shirt

How do you suggest someone takes the skills of the humanities into business?

“I see it as an exercise in translation, ‘What are the lesson I can extract from my studies?’. How can you communicate and market yourself to someone as you come in [to a corporate setting] with a parallel set of skills and work to bridge that gap? It is hard to bridge that gap because you become entrenched in the jargon of your discipline. This is a red flag for me when someone has too much academic jargon in their job application. It shows me that someone has not yet translated these lessons. I think the most important thing is to start by understanding the language and culture of the professional world and seeing how they speak and the words they use. They’ll say things like mission instead of purpose or values instead of ethics.

“You can start to grow your dictionary between the worlds and make connections. Start by having conversations, getting yourself into professional settings and spaces, and learning how to translate and apply. It is also an exercise in failing, but you do not need to fail on the big stage. Try to reach out and get feedback, network with the people who work in the professional world, and have them help you in the translation. Just like you would with learning a language.

“And finally, have the courage to forge this path for yourself, regardless of what the convention is. Rely on an open mind and go towards whatever you want by asking questions and engaging in open injury.” 

And that is the true application of the humanities, not just in business, but in life, too.

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