Michael Schrage of MIT Media Lab’s E-Markets Initiative is telling us, in the keynote at Baruch College’s Schwartz Symposium (IT Matters: Redefining Effective Communication), that really the major thing digital technologies are giving us is more opportunity for self-indulgence. His idea is that self-expression and self-indulgence are really equivalent and that what matters is not what a writer wants to say but what an audience needs to understand.

Now I’m all for audience awareness, and I’m all for his related point that a focus on editing is all too often missing (but if he thinks that the fact that students don’t want to edit means that we don’t want to teach editing, his experience with current composition instruction must be incredibly limited-and thanks to a commenter from Baruch for pointing this out).

But I keep being troubled at this symposium by an idea (I’ve mentioned it before) that practical training for success in business is the only appropriate purpose for higher education.

Another speaker earlier in the day proposed that what higher education needs is more input, more direct instruction, from business people, business leaders. When I suggested that this kind of input and interaction needs to go both ways, that we as academics had a lot to teach business, too, she heard that comment as saying that professors should come sit in the back of boardrooms and listen to how things work–not really what I was suggesting.

So there’s really many kinds of self-indulgence. If we as academics can be accused of isolation and elitism, there’s a very good case to be made that the exact same accusation can be levelled at the business world. What is practical and efficient has value, but what is abstract, multi-faceted, aesthetic and humane has at least as much value.

When business neglects this kind of value, privileging only its own needs, the self-indulgence…and the consequences!…are severe indeed.