Date: Dec 10, 2012 7:00 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: How to Be a Successful Human

From Stanford Magazine [A publication of the
Stanford Alumni Association], November-December
2012, p. 4. See
How to Be a Successful Human

A humanities education is valuable now, later and forever.

By Kevin Cool

Several summers ago, halfway up a Cascade
mountainside in Washington, three friends and I
huddled beneath the largest tree we could find,
waiting out a downpour. We had arrived at our
campsite a few minutes earlier and hadn't had
time to erect our tents before a torrent hammered
down, sending us for cover.

Minutes passed. Conversation lulled. Our
shoulders began to sodden as the rain
intensified. Weary and wet, we made a sorry scene.

And then, unprompted, my friend Tom began
reciting Shakespeare in a sonorous baritone:

Poor naked wretches,
wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm Š

Perhaps you know the rest, from King Lear,
appropriated by James Agee in his foreword to Let
Us Now Praise Famous Men.

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

And so on.

Tom's enunciation of those magnificent words
didn't make us any drier, but they did warm us a
little. It was a momentary reprieve from our
dreary situation, and it was exactly what we
needed. Well, that and a sturdy rooftop.

Knowing Shakespeare by heart may not be the best
argument for humanities education, but when
you're standing under a tree in the wilderness
getting rained on, it will do.

We need people who know how to write computer
code, build space rockets and perform heart
surgery. All of these are important and desirable
skills. What humanities education provides that
these don't, necessarily, is a handle on what we
value (philosophy), what mistakes we've learned
from (history), how to understand other cultures
(comparative literature) and how to interpret and
describe what we encounter from day to day
(English). You know, how to be a successful human.

The case against studying the humanities is this,
boiled down: They're irrelevant. They're not
Useful. They won't get you a job that pays the
bills, including the bills you stacked up
learning them.

Well, that's just not true, and Stanford faculty
have decided they're tired of hearing it. They
are on a mission to change these misconceptions
about humanities and oh, by the way, to point out
that Stanford has some of the best programs in
the humanities anywhere in the world.

I am the product of a humanities program, so
maybe it's no surprise that I would evangelize
about them. But I do understand why programs with
a more strictly utilitarian bent are attractive,
especially in a time of economic malaise. I would
never presume to suggest that choosing a major
in, say, Italian literature, makes more sense
than one in computer science or any field that
promises quick employment. Provided, of course,
that computer science is what gets one up in the
morning. If it's mostly a means to a paycheck,
though, that seems like a bad bargain.

Education is for life, not just for the first
five years out of school. And the humanities are
great investments for the long term. They teach
you to think critically, measure nuance,
calibrate tradeoffs and make a persuasive
argument. Heck, they might even embed an
inspiring passage from a long-dead playwright.
You never know when that will come in handy.
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: Education is for life, not
just for the first five years out of school.
Fanatic Studio
You can reach Kevin at
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244