The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be…. They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of. This, I would submit, is value-and cheap at the price.
The second was Lee Bryant’s fascinating talk about instiutions as delivery mechanisms for our values.
Humanities are a great delivery model for democratic values
Institutions act as delivery models for our values
Given that, doesn’t it make sense to keep the humanities in schools and for organisations to actively encourage that? If institutions are actively looking to act as stewards for values, then should they be trying to encourage the humanities in education as well as STEM and the like?
There’s an asteroid the size of Montana heading toward Earth and if it hits us, the planet is over. But we’ve got one last-ditch plan. We need a team to land on the surface of the asteroid, drill a nuclear warhead one mile into its core, and get out before it explodes. And you’re just the liberal arts major we need to lead that team.
… I don’t need some pencilneck with four Ph.D’s, one-thousand hours of simulator time, and the ability to operate a robot crane in low-Earth orbit. I need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies, three subsequent years in temp jobs, and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study. I need someone who can read The Bell Jar and make strong observations about its representations of mental health and the repression of women.
Michael Ellsberg has a book out called The Education of Millionaires, which outlines the 7 key skills you need to know to become a millionaire like college drop-outs Zuckerberg or Gates. The argument, loosely, is:
yes college can teach you many wonderful things
but those things do not transfer easily to the real world.
various millionaires have done really well without a university degree
so at worst, higher education may actually get in the way
at best it obscures the key skills money-making college drop-outs like Dell and Gates have learned.
Vartan Gregorian has an excellent review.Along with the standard defence of liberal arts as a preparation for the ups and downs of life, one point in particular struck a chord.
What is also left out of the debate about higher education is that its purpose is not just to provide a pathway paved with gold for the nation’s elites. If we frame the discussion that way, we may unintentionally serve to disparage the people who are in charge of the daily management, maintenance and smooth operation of our civilization — the men and women who deliver our mail, comprise our police force, serve in our military, work in our libraries, teach our elementary school children, and devote themselves to a thousand other jobs that, if not performed with responsibility, commitment and creativity, would undermine the basic structures of our society. Though these individuals may not be reaching for the kind of stars that Michael Ellsberg and others would have them aspire to grasp, most are doing something even more important: they are engaging in the useful tasks of good citizens and contributing to the common welfare, including providing for their families. And perhaps they are even carrying out what Marcus Aurelius called “one of our assignments in life … to do what needs doing.”
Spot on, in my book. Any mass educational system will have a hard time dealing with those at either end of a bell-curve. But surely the failures of these systems to cope with exceptional cases does not invalidate them? Rather than eulogising these exceptional cases – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg – as icons in the fight against an impractical education, they should be celebrated, I think, for having the self-awareness to decide that college was not for them. No less, no more.
What can the humanities offer students in the twenty-first century? Merely the possibility of teaching them to pay attention, to contemplate, to appreciate beauty, to experience awe and wonder, to think with depth and sensitivity about life, and to know there are values beyond profit and self-interest. The humanities teach us habits of critical thought and the historical perspective necessary for citizenship in a democracy. And they help us to think about how to use technology to make the world a better home for humanity. This is not meant as a rallying cry for educational Luddites or to deepen the divide between the world of science and technology on the one hand and the humanities on the other. But it is meant as a reminder that the classics, from the ancient to the contemporary, became so because they endured, and they endured because their greatness in form and content transcends their time and place and thus speaks to everyone. The humanities speak to us, but the responsibility to listen is ours, and it is our responsibility to lead students into such listening.