(About a 3 minute read)
I do not believe anyone these days should be so foolish as to get an education only in the humanities. Nowadays, you absolutely need to take a substantial number of courses in the sciences if you want anything remotely like a decent education.
Nor do I recommend that anyone these days risk being unemployable by getting an education that’s purely humanities or even combines the humanities and the sciences. I’d tell anyone who doesn’t expect to inherit a fortune to at least minor in some employable field, especially given the debt folks are going into to get an education.
However, I do believe there’s much to be said about gaining an education in such things as English literature, history, and so forth. In fact, I’d say get as much as you can afford in those subjects.
First, the humanities expand your awareness of life. So do many other subjects, of course, but I think it’s arguable that the humanities do so in ways that are sometimes unique to them. To illustrate, how can you fully understand politics if you do not understand history? Unless, for instance, you have enough history to see that a major theme running through all of it for the past 5,500 years has been the conflict between elites and non-elites, how can you understand today’s systemic undermining of people’s belief in representative democracy?
Again, there are ways that reading and analyzing a poem or a novel in an English literature class can provide you with insights into human nature you might not as readily pick up in a psychology, anthropology, or sociology course. To illustrate, suppose you read and studied Macbeth. Even if you did not learn any new facts about human nature, would you not be likely to learn what emphasis to put on those facts?
Or, more precisely, you can learn and compare dozens of different ways of looking at, or emphasizing, the same facts about human nature from studying dozens of different authors.
There are also some facts of human nature that you just don’t learn so directly or so forcefully in any other fields. Such as the fact we are a tragic species, and why we are a tragic species. You can learn science to support that view, but the view itself is presented much more clearly in the humanities.
Moreover, the very means whereby you analyze the poem or novel can provide you with a life long means of analyzing — not just poems and novels — but life situations. Those techniques can help you to see to the heart of matters.
Beyond that, people’s reading comprehension seems to me appalling these days. But it’s hard to take a good course in philosophy, let alone English Lit, that does not improve that. And frankly, I doubt you’ll find too many people in senior executive positions who cannot comprehend the memos they read.
Someone once asked a Cambridge or Oxford professor what the value of an education in the humanities was. He replied, “It will help you to see though the people who wish to make a fool of you.” I believe he was right. So right, that I even suspect Fox News would never have gotten the market share it has today if Americans were much more educated in the humanities than we are.
Comments? Questions? Thinly veiled allegations I cheered when Juliet died?