The Case for the Humanities (Or, Why We Like Lincoln)

Joe Hogan

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Next winter, I’ll leave Grand Valley with a degree in the humanities. More specifically, I’ll complete a double major in English and film. Except, with film, I won’t have emphasized in video production, animation, documentary, or anything even remotely practical; I will have emphasized in cinema studies. That means, more or less, that I do with films what English majors do with books: analyze them, explicate them, write essays about them.

So, one wouldn’t say that my degree is entirely useful in the utilitarian sense. At reunions and get-togethers, many a concerned uncle or family friend, dubious about my post-graduate prospects, has asked me what I’d like to do with my humanities degree; I’ve assured each ambivalent party that I will use my talents to concoct for them a delicious venti Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks, and would they like whipped cream with that?

Of course, whenever I say that, I’m kidding. Still, the problem remains. Last week, the New York Times published two articles, one by Peter Brooks and the other by Verlyn Klinkenborg, that bemoan the current state of the humanities in universities such as ours. The problem, as they see it, is that there are very few humanities majors anymore. The first explanation they give is a common one: students (and, perhaps more importantly, their parents) believe that a major in English or philosophy or art won’t get them a job. Second, they claim that many people, even professors, don’t recognize the true value of studying the humanities. Klinkenborg describes that arcane value as “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature;” whereas Brooks claims that the point of the humanities is “to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul.”

And yet, though I wholeheartedly agree with them, I have a feeling that Klinkenborg and Brooks might be preaching to the choir. Surely, humanities professors agree with their concern and likely believe, deep in their guts, that studying the humanities is one of the noblest and most profoundly human ventures. Still, it must be difficult to convince an entire class of college freshmen that reading Homer will, in the long run, be more beneficial than studying business, let alone that it will “cultivate the human core.” So I can’t help but wonder if the people the columnists are really trying to reach—namely, students in or entering college—are ever going to grasp the worth of the humanities unless they somehow learn to experience it for themselves.

I’ve run into this very dilemma myself. For the past couple years, I’ve spent time as a writing consultant in freshman writing classrooms, both 098 and 150, and have experienced first-hand the pervasive sense of apathy for the humanities that Brooks and Klinkenborg describe. In fact, I commonly debate with students about the merits of studying writing and argument—two key facets of the humanities—as they begin their final papers and would clearly “prefer not to,” in Bartleby’s words.

With freshmen, here is the most common argument I encounter: we don’t need a liberal arts education to get a good job, and we’re here just to get a good job.

And here’s how I reply: Being at a liberal arts college like GVSU means you can study whatever practical subject you’d like, but can also interact with professors who expect you to articulate just what is so hauntingly beautiful about the Sistine Chapel, or discuss with precision the nuances of race relations in Huckleberry Finn. To do so, you will have to learn to think better thoughts. More importantly, you will have to present those thoughts persuasively.

In any human venture, the most successful people can, with rational beauty and grace, develop and articulate their thoughts about the world. Thus, in business or government, you’ve likely never seen an effective leader who cannot speak beautifully, with power and insight. We’ve etched the Gettysburg Address in stone for a reason.

The point is: if you study the humanities, you will learn to think and speak powerfully, with grace and insight. Thus, if you use your talents well, you will inspire others to follow you because they will believe (and rightly) that your vision is the result of a unique and defined perspective on the world. In any career, this will make you a leader not just in name, but spirit.