The Importance Of The Humanities
It's not very often that, at seventeen, you find yourself talking to a retired business tycoon who starts off the conversation by apologising for shaking your hand with his left hand because he'd lost a finger on his right. Perhaps I should have, but it didn't seem like the right time to discover the story behind that one. It's not very often that as you sit across from said tycoon- who someone you admire once told you was intimidating- you realise that, in fact, you have a ridiculous amount in common and soon find yourself discussing your future plans and dreams. You hate talking about the future, but as he explains his unconventional way of getting a collage education- nine years of night classes after word days that started at six am, not to mention doing one course for four years then switching majors- suddenly you come to the realisation that even intimating, ruthless business tycoons are simply people. People with extraordinary wit and determination, certainly, but people all the same.
When the topic switched to university, he had two pieces of advice for me;
1. Don't ever think about not going to university.
2. Never underestimate the power of the humanities.
Now, coming from a business tycoon who'd studied math and engineering, the second one surprised me. For those of us who wish to study English or history, a language or Mediterranean studies, these types of answers seem to forever spiral into lectures on “the real world” and “marketable skills.”
You will perhaps try to explain how literature is what you love, that Milton and Safran Foer make your world go ‘round, and that when you lost your best friend or you moved schools or got on a plane alone for he first time, it was Rumi or Keats or Austen that kept you emotionally afloat — it was the humanities that gave you perspective and propelled you to see the world as a place worth living in. And while you may feel as much connection with statistics, finance, or engineering as you do with your estranged auntie who’s gorging herself across the table, somehow these are subjects that nearly everyone now pursues.
But here was this 'ruthless tycoon'; this mathematician and engineer graduate, telling me the very opposite. And it's the best pep talk I've received in these past five years- years filled with university talks and careers meetings, and not to mention other people's advice and opinions weighing heavy on my consciousness.
At Pomona College, one of the foremost liberal arts schools in America, less than 1% of students graduated with an English degree last May. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. There is a rather depressing, albeit growing belief that university is “about the degree” — the same excuse that justifies skipping class or exerting only a minimum effort on assignments and exams, where students do just enough to get the grade, but little more. Many now view university as, at its essence, only a conduit to a good job, and if you say you’re studying history of art or photography, someone is bound to roll their eyes, certain that you’re only biding your time until you’re allowed access to your trust fund.
One of the key arguments in favour of studying the humanities is that it fundamentally improves people. These apologists cite the studies that show reading fiction builds empathy, and they’ll push the idea that a literary or artistic savvy makes one more understanding and compassionate. The other claim is that the humanities bestow certain intangible, future benefits. Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in The New York Times, the gift of studying the humanities “is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” These arguments are rather weak though and both strike me as a touch saccharine, as a little too feel-good-y and not at all useful when sitting at the dinner table attempting to defend your life.
But reflect on what the wealthy do after they’ve made their fortune. They go to the opera and ballet. They build themselves libraries. They read their children poetry and hire governesses to speak to them in French. The eventual life goal of so many people — after the banking business has succeeded, after the stock values have skyrocketed, after the retirement fund has hit the magic number — is to enjoy books, theatre, art, history, to tap into their very humanity.
Think of all the people who have always wanted to write a novel, but they haven’t had the time. You could fill this room one thousand times over with those who’ve said they were just going to work for a little bit, save some money, then do what they really loved. But, almost invariably, they end up waiting until they’ve retired, and while their bank account might be fuller because of it they are lacking in vitality — too many years of doing something of little interest for its purported stability and respectability always takes its toll. As an unlikely new friend recently told me - the humanities major has merely chosen to reorder his life, so that what he is passionate about comes first. Studying English or fine art or creative writing has no end goal; rather, it is about finding one’s one humanity. It is about realising that you’ve only one life to live and that to put off your interests until your time is about to expire is to order things rather poorly.
Someone at the dinner table might shrug, saying something subtly condescending like, “I guess you could teach with that degree.” But hopefully you’ve learned that doing things purely for the sake of money, for some perverse sense of prestige, for a life in which you pursue the things that do not interest you, would be a life lost. Euphoria is found when the bowlines of expectations are cast off and a sea of passion, while tumultuous and unstable, is taken on with excitement and wide eyes. A seemingly stable outer shell too often equates with emptiness on the inside, and while we’re constantly pushed to robotically crunch numbers for corporations and sit through courses we’ve little care about, there must be some imperative to pursue pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Amidst a production-over-pleasure world, the humanities let us feel, well, human again.