With the Fall Semester kicking off for thousands of college students across the country, it is time for many of them to start asking themselves: “So what classes do I take?” Some will have a definitive future goal in mind: the law; marine biology; teaching. But for every student that knows exactly what they want the future to hold at eighteen, there are hundreds if not thousands that have no inkling as to what major they should pursue, let alone the job they want to eventually apply for and hopefully obtain. As a result, students should take the first year or two investigating their options, one of which is behind the door marked “Humanities.”
Much has been made over the last several years – reiterated over the summer several times by David Brooks, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal – on the decline and fall of the humanities across college campuses. What a majority of these arguments focus on is the fall of the English major – regardless of the fact that the humanities includes philosophy, religion, history, psychology, and political science, to name a few – and the risks it poses to each individual student, as well as society as a whole. The resulting effect will be a nation of students that cannot think as critically, the critics protest. Students will miss out on a variety of readings and interpretations that will help them understand an interconnected world still vastly dispersed culturally, socially, and religiously, if you can wrap your head around that. People will not pass the threshold of adulthood knowing the pleasures of Ulysses…which would be a tragic and terrible loss indeed.
But what is the fundamental purpose of the humanities? To define it in one sentence (which seems to be somewhat of a taxing endeavor) the humanities encompass and illuminate our reflections, thoughts, ideas, commentaries, beliefs, and guiding principles that define our history and present as a human race. Sounds like a lot, right? It should.
Many of the great literary works reflect the historical rifts and changes in our social fabric.
Philosophy offers a multitude of views on the individual, the collective, and how one manages the uncertainties of being human, surrounded by other humans uncertain of their surroundings.
The study of political science has been a stepping stone for many future lawyers, but being deeply knowledgeable about political institutions and history enable a person to be an astute political participant for the remainder of their life.
In a nation where our main methods of persuasion are television, sound bits, and hit-and-run media, being able to investigate, formulate, and calmly detail an argument is an art that is being lost, written or otherwise. While it is important to invest in more specified job training, what do we lack as a society when we can no longer receive feedback, say how we feel, and relate our best ideas to a wide audience already overflowing with them? While we must invest more in math and science, do we skim off the side of internal human consciousness to patch those holes? I would argue no.
We must make curriculum tougher. We must allow our teachers to teach with passion, not simply prattle on about their deeply specialized research. We must expect more from our universities when preparing students for successful lives – worry less about the dollars rolling into the athletic departments, and more about the students rolling out the university doors. Furthermore, this debate on the fall of the humanities should not turn into a conflict between the humanities and every other discipline; it should be a debate about the merits of the humanities within a larger curriculum that prepares an individual for a student life, as William Osler stated. The humanities should help a person discover they want to lead a life as a doctor, or a policeman, or a high school math teacher, because embedded within each is a factor of nobleness, not just a high wage or a hefty pension. The humanities should enable a person to ask large questions in a safe environment, showing them they are not walking alone but treading a path well-worn with recognizable and unrecognizable names carved into the longstanding trees. How important is it when they walk farther and farther down the path, realizing that fewer and fewer names are carved into the bark, until they finally realize there are but a few, and they have come to a genuinely unique and exceptional conclusion? Only they can tell you, and I bet in the process they will do so quite poetically, quite politely, with grace and care for the responses they may receive in turn.
So to all undergraduates I would say take on the humanities, walk through that door, and figure out what you want to be; find something well-worth living for.