Education, Humanities, Quality of Life

The Value of an Education in the Humanities

(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?

15 thoughts on “The Value of an Education in the Humanities”

  1. Great topic, discussed a bit among American and British bloggers over at my old, now discontinued but by me missed, blog “Man of Roma”.

    Humanities educate people in rich ways, as you have eloquently written. People should at least read some literature classics like Shakespeare, Melville, Tolstoy etc. and / or have fun with history, which can really entertain since it regards people, millions of real people around the world, no matter the age.

    Some courses are perhaps better if one lacks determination or inspiration at the start but, yes, they cost money.

    Humanities – only apparently off-topic – also make people ‘cultured’, i.e. having some general knowledge & refinement. And, as an American of German origin, Andreas Kluth, once put it, this type of knowledge being perceived as snobbish only “is perhaps a tragedy” as is perhaps a tragedy the erasure of a high-pop ‘culture’ distinction.

    Europe is no better. We should try to do something about it. Blogs like yours do a good job in this.

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  2. Thank you for your kind words, MOR. It is troubling to hear that even in Europe there is a rejection these days of high culture. I have always looked to Europe to lead the way in that area. Without an appreciation for such things, I don’t know what field there will be for expressing excellence in so many things — especially the arts. What then becomes of our ideals? Very troubling.

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    1. Yes, troubling. I am old, I’m just worried for the young people. As for books, music, poetry, art etc. I guess one should be able to distinguish between the really good stuff and the low-quality stuff, like so many can do with wine or whiskies, this without falling into the trap of considering “the good stuff” only products of a snobbish culture. As for the low high distinction, Wikipedia (which I do appreciate and support each month) may also be responsible a bit for this difference erasure, who knows, since it often devotes the same number of pages to entries like, say, Beethoven or Madonna.

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      1. Could it be we’re not teaching our teachers “high culture” well enough that they can impart a genuine appreciation for it to their own students, MOR?

        But I think even if that’s true, there’s much more to it than that alone. It seems to me that a huge factor here is we live in an age when high culture is thought insufferably snobbish, and anti-democratic. But the opposition to it often strays into a bit snobbery themselves, believing themselves too good and down to earth for such “pretentious nonsense”.

        To me, it’s a mess. A threat to humanity in general these days — to our spirits or souls — is being reduced to no more than our economic worth. What stands in the way of that if we let slip away the arts and literature that encourages us to see ourselves as having some greater value than merely our contributions to the economy?

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  3. Well said. Couldn’t agree more.Net value of so called Human being is ‘ZERO’ if the Human being is devoid of basic humanity.Thank you for the post.Educationists should ponder over this.

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    1. Thank you so much, Lauren! If you happen to the Lauren of “In Dark Times” then welcome back. It’s great to see you again.

      But whoever you are, thanks for commenting. Much appreciated.

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  4. I am from India. I have read both humanities and science. Yes, not only people but students too tend to consider a guy reading Geography, English, commerce subjects inferior. But, with the growing interest in high authority competition exams, the craze for Humanity reads by NCERT is up once again

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