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
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 email@example.com *********************************************** -- 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 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org