American Culture

A case for the Humanities

Vitruvian Man

Arguing for well-rounded, well-educated human beings in the US is probably as fruitless as arguing for the Humanities. And for the same reasons.

Besides the obvious benefit of agitating evangelical conservatives with a fear of liberal indoctrination, the Humanities hold great value. So it’s odd that their value in education is rarely declared in anything approaching a straightforward way. The Humanities teach critical thinking. They can teach radical, right wing people to think critically and formulate strong arguments just as well as it can teach a new generation of NPR liberals.

“There is no case for the Humanities” is a fascinating read that covers the subject from an academic perspective, both historically and as the present develops into the future. It makes the case that the Humanities cannot be separated from a true university education. And the piece does so while briefly chronicling how the Humanities have changed since the days of Roman education.

Still, whatever administrators and legislators might think, the fact that there is no case for the humanities is irrelevant. The Humanities do not need to make a case within the university, because the Humanities are the heart of the university.

Frankly, I agree. Unfortunately, that’s not the most compelling argument in America these days. Given America’s infatuation with idiocy, my argument probably isn’t much more compelling, but here it is anyway.

Today I am what’s called an Industrial Hygienist. My job is to predict, understand and address exposure to dangers (mostly) in the workplace. It’s about as STEMmy as a job gets in that pretty much every day sees me elbow deep in every word represented in the acronym. I’m expected to have working knowledge of chemistry, biology, toxicology, epidemiology, physics, and how mechanical systems such as ventilation work. Let me tell you what a pain in the ass ventilation equations are. And I don’t live my life in a lab. All of it needs to be applied in the muddy and ever-changing context of the real world, often in emergency situations.

I took my last math class in high school. I did take Astronomy in college, but didn’t expect it to be 16 weeks of nuclear equations. I’ve got a BA in Comparative Religion with a minor in Philosophy and almost minor/major credit requirements in a handful of other Humanities disciplines.

I credit my success in a very technical field to my Humanities education.

A good Humanities (or Liberal Arts if you prefer) education teaches people to read with depth and care; to synthesize the information they take in; and to express rational, defensible arguments based on the information they’ve synthesized. The scientific method isn’t really that scientific. It can be applied most anywhere or anytime. But it’s not necessarily what you learn in a technical education until you reach an advanced stage. There’s so much basic information to absorb before a student can actually put the critical thinking of the scientific method into practice that it’s usually reserved for at least Master’s degree candidates. But you can put the “scientific method” of critical thinking taught by the Humanities to work based on a newspaper article or anything else as soon as you have the confidence to do it.

My job requires me to constantly learn. In many ways I have to play catch-up to peers on technical subject matter because of the difference in education. My Humanities education gave me the skills to be able to catch up. More importantly, I hold an advantage over some of my peers. We’re all nerds. I just happen to be one who’s very adept at explaining the technical subjects to non-technical clients; one who’s not afraid to critically read regulations and draft arguments based on that critical reading; and one who has confidence in those arguments as well as my verbal/written presentation of them. All of those and my critical thinking/problem solving skills were developed within and honed by a serious commitment to education within the Humanities.

There’s a reason that Silicon Valley is currently crushing on the unloved people of the modern workforce, like English majors. A strong Humanities education is applicable to just about everything. A strong technical education is generally applicable to a limited set of situations. One is not truly better than the other. In fact, they can and should complement each other. But making an argument for well-rounded, well-educated human beings in the US today is, well, probably as fruitless as making an argument for the Humanities and for the same reasons.