In the rugged coal country of western Maryland, amid the ancient folds of landscape that gave rise to the Appalachian Mountains and a way of life for generations, a potential standoff looms. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial method of extracting natural gas from shale deposits deep within the earth, has sparked an often acrimonious debate that pits the prospect of new jobs and a vast source of clean energy against the threat of contaminated groundwater and subterranean scarring.
This is a job for humanities counseling, says Tom Crain, a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Crain isn’t your typical business faculty. An expert in ethics, leadership theory, and cross-cultural communications, he holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English (to which he will soon be adding a doctorate in English literature from Johns Hopkins) and was instrumental in creating the Carey Business School’s Thought and Discourse Seminars, in which Global MBA students examine complex issues relating to ethics and corporate responsibility. For the past six years, Crain has also served on the board of the Maryland Humanities Council, where he was appointed chair last fall.
The council sees great works of art and scholarly achievements as increasingly relevant in a world where coarseness and closed- mindedness encroach upon informed and respectful debate. To that end, the council taps the humanities—a short story by Tolstoy, a Monet painting—to establish common ground and promote constructive dialogue in communities across the state. “We started thinking how we could develop programs focusing on creating conversations and discourse concerning ‘problem areas,’” Crain says.
This is just what the council did with the fracking debate, gathering together more than 200 community members last March to participate in a spirited dialogue. During the forum, a screening of the 2010 film Gasland—a documentary that takes an unblinking look at the history of fracking—encouraged all in attendance to articulate what the area meant to them emotionally and spiritually, as well as economically. Ultimately, the discussion generated by the film birthed a community group that pledged to gather more information and keep the citizenry active and informed.
This is just the kind of thoughtful and productive debate Crain encourages in the business community in general, and among Carey Business School students in particular. “Carey and the Humanities Council take a parallel approach in many respects, by examining our sense of stakeholders and the often complex relationships at play when companies and communities perceive each other at cross-purposes,” he says. “What both are coming to realize is that a symbiotic relationship often exists where discourse, disclosure, and collaboration realize advantages for all. Businesses that do right by their communities will ultimately do the best for themselves.”