If you are an educator, parent, or just someone who keeps up with current trends in our country, you are probably aware that the humanities have taken quite a beating in the last decade or two. In public schools, there has been an increasing shift away from literature to informational texts, as well as an emphasis on reading several short texts about the same issue (often informative/nonfiction essays and data sets with a poem, short story, or short excerpt from a novel thrown in) and synthesizing them vs. reading a full-length novel. At the college/university level, there has been tremendous focus on whether or not a humanities major is a complete waste of money, the underlying assumption being that the value of higher education is strictly whether or not it can land you a high-salaried position and make your loans a worthwhile financial investment.
Even if everyone isn’t going quite to the extreme of this 2012 article from Forbes, which suggested that humanities majors were useless and such programs ought to be cut from colleges and universities, there has still been a strong push from both government and industry leaders for more and more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses and programs. Because everything of value in this world is now about technology, science, and information, right? Oh, and making lots of money.
Except that’s just not true. In 2014, Forbes acknowledged that a humanities major might not be a complete waste of money after all. And just last month, they even went so far as to recognize that even high-powered tech companies are hiring more humanities majors than STEM majors these days. Why? Because people who major in fields like philosophy and literature tend to be good thinkers, possess the ability to make mental leaps and connect seemingly disparate ideas, understand and are comfortable with nuance and ambiguity, have greater insight into people and what drives them, and have the skill to communicate effectively about all of these things. Which, as it turns out, can be pretty useful and is becoming more and more attractive to businesses.
Another article that caught my attention was this piece, written for the NY Times by a Harvard professor. In this article, the professor discusses a non-credit seminar developed for students based on feedback the university got from graduating seniors—poignant feedback like this:
“My experience in classes here at Harvard was excellent overall. Yet I wish I had a chance as a freshman to discuss with fellow students, in an organized way, some questions about ‘how to live my life.’ I did quite well in economics and history and chemistry. There were plenty of such courses. Yet there was no class where I could discuss questions such as, ‘what do I really stand for?’ ‘Where have my personal values come from?’ ‘Are these values immutable?’ Do I expect them to be any different by the time I graduate from here in several years?”
What constitutes living a ‘good’ life? Is this a different question from asking what constitutes living a ‘useful’ life? And how about what constitutes living a ‘successful’ life? They sound similar, yet the nuances are different.
and finally, simply:
What do you believe are life’s essential conversations?
Some of the most “successful” students in the country, most likely on their way to lucrative and high-status jobs, are still feeling like they’re missing something–that some of the most important lessons in life haven’t been addressed in all their years of coursework.
This is not to say that a humanities major necessarily provides this missing component, or that some of the students writing these comments weren’t humanities majors. I have no way of knowing that information. But when I looked at the topics and activities Harvard developed to address these needs, I was struck by how many of them either overlap or are exactly the same as the activities and discussions I have with my students as we read various works of literature. Because literature–which is, essentially, the story of humanity, identity, values–explores all of these deep questions. You can’t truly engage in reading good literature without engaging with these issues and thinking about them and being shaped by them in some way. And quality literature not only presents the issues, but it also teaches you how to think about them in a rich and complex way. In other words, those who read regularly and read deeply can’t help but emerge with not only knowledge but also wisdom.
From a purely anecdotal perspective, as someone who has gotten to know literally thousands of people over the years (just living my life and also teaching for over 19 years), all of the most interesting and mature thinkers—all of the most wise and self-aware people I know—are readers. This applies to a number of STEM folks as well. I have quite a few friends (and two brothers) who are in STEM fields, but what differentiates them is that they are also lovers of books. I have yet to meet someone who reads regularly who is not an insightful and interesting thinker. Of course, anyone who has access to quality books, whether they are a janitor or an engineer, has access to this development. But few people have the motivation or ability to completely ‘go it alone,’ especially when it comes to more challenging works of literature or philosophy. For most, the opportunity to read works they might not otherwise select for themselves, the opportunity to reflect on these works and the issues they raise with a group of other people with whom they can discuss and explore, the opportunity to learn how to express their own thoughts and have their thinking refined by others’–well, that sounds like a humanities class.