The Value of the Humanities

By James Kwak

In the Washington Post, Harvard Medical School professor David Silbersweig argues for the continuing value of a liberal arts education in today’s world. The “liberal arts”—usually meaning anything other than math, science, engineering, and maybe business—do seem to be under attack from all quarters, and not only from know-nothings like Marco Rubio. Just this week, the president of Queen’s University in Belfast said this (explaining why students will no longer be able to concentrate in sociology or anthropology):

Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.

That’s the new conventional wisdom: we need “leaders” who can “help society drive forward,” whatever that means.

Silbersweig himself majored in philosophy before becoming a doctor and a medical researcher. He makes a number of points, but this is the one you usually see in articles like this:

If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything. If you can extract, and abstract, underlying assumptions or superordinate principles, or reason through to the implications of arguments, you can identify and address issues in a myriad of fields.

I certainly agree. And I also agree that society needs people with a broad range of intellectual perspectives. This is the kind of thing you would expect me to agree with. I majored in social studies and got a Ph.D. in French intellectual history, of all things (and one of my fields for my orals was philosophy). But there’s an important caveat, which I’ll get to.

Unlike, say, learning Java, it isn’t easy to specify exactly what you learn in the humanities that turns out to be useful later. You do a lot of reading and writing, but of course those are things you knew how to do before going to college. You may learn how to check out boxes of documents at the archives, but that turns out not to be so useful unless you stay in academic research.

One thing I think I learned was dealing with ambiguity. In fields like social studies and history, you rarely find explanations of the world that are unequivocally correct. You don’t even have the pretense, which many economists labor under, that there is an unequivocally correct explanation out there, and you are just trying to find it. As a result, one thing I became pretty good at was using words fill to gaps—manufacturing connections and relationships between different phenomena. This, it turns out, is a very useful skill in the business world where, to tell an old consulting joke, two data points are a trend and three data points are proof. The ability to come up with a story that is convincing—and that very well may be true—based on limited information can be worth a lot in the business world.

Another thing that you can develop in the humanities is the ability to convince people. Unlike math or physics, often there is no definitive way to prove anything, so powers of argument matter. As I’ve often told students and advice-seekers, the single most important skill in business is the ability to pick up the phone, call someone (no, email doesn’t work) who doesn’t owe you anything, and convince her to do something for you. The most convincing person I’ve ever met is also the most effective businessperson I’ve ever known, and he has a B.A. and D.Phil. in philosophy.

And, of course, you learn a lot more about the real world—meaning how people behave, both individually and in groups—in the humanities and social sciences than you do in most scientific fields. So, for example, you might realize that human beings are prone to herd behavior when it comes to, say, investing in real estate, and that bubbles are prone to collapse in messy ways.

The caveat, though, is this: David Silbersweig went to Dartmouth and Cornell Medical School. I went to Harvard and UC-Berkeley (and, much later, the Yale Law School). If you go to a school like that, there are prestigious companies that will take a chance on you even if you majored in classics or medieval history. Even so, there aren’t that many: three consulting firms, a handful of investment banks, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and probably not that many others. Or you can get fancy summer internships even as you spend your semesters reading Sartre and Heidegger, or whatever people read today. Or, as they say, you can always go to law school.

The problem is that while we need lots and lots of people with humanities and social science backgrounds, in today’s increasingly anti-intellectual climate, majoring in philosophy is becoming a risk that fewer and fewer people can afford to take. It’s also becoming an option that fewer and fewer people have to begin with, as schools from Queen’s University to CUNY make it harder and harder to study in fields that can’t attract their own corporate donors. This is what happens when you have a poor job market for new graduates, a social safety net in tatters, crumbling financial support for public higher education, an arms race in corporate fundraising by elite private schools, and a general takeover of the intellectual culture by corporate CEOs. Studying French literature will become one more luxury good reserved for the elite.

13 thoughts on “The Value of the Humanities

  1. You make an excellent point, but miss a couple of details.

    1. Actual modern science is not exact. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics and the Godel theorum in math build in ambiguity in even the hardest of the hard sciences. The battle most liberal arts majors are fighting relates only to Newtonian physics, something as traumatic to the world as the discovery of fire. This is the Jungian “shadow” of the Enlightenment, which turned all the old religions into superstition and discarded their wisdom in favor of “reason.”

    Just a reminder: The “reasonable” Thomas Jefferson took a slave mistress who was the half sister of his late wife (fathered by his father-in-law on a slave). Ick! That’s how limited is “reason.”

    2. Science is not more accurate than liberal arts thinking in most practical matters. Only “MBA thinking” insists that our policies be (Newtonian) “scientific.”

    For example, school reformers insist on testing to determine whether education is successful. This is congruent with the MBA’s insistence that if something can’t be measured it isn’t real.

    BTW, how much do you love your loved ones? On a scale of one to ten, I mean.

    What’s doubly hilarious about the MBA mentality is that it is founded on a fraud. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific” management included experiments where he cooked the books to make sure his conclusions matched his hypothesis. Taylor was the inspiration for the Wharton business school, the first MBA program in the country.

    You can read all about this in former management consultant, philosophy PhD. Matthew Stewart’s “The Management Myth.” Stewart debunks the idea that management is a science, suggesting that it too is a liberal art.

  2. As bad as education is with this country you should just teach them how to read and write and do arithmetic and send them into the REAL world to get the life experience one needs to survive rather than truly try to educate them any further. The damage done from todays educators is horrendous indeed.

  3. This is a really essential topic, and a great post. Thanks James!

    Patrick Johnson made a name for himself in leading Cancer Research and oncology is his center of gravity. As a president of a Major University facing crisis has not been as most prolific hour:
    “Johnston’s tenure at Queen’s has been controversial. He is seen by many to be interested only in financial gain and establishing corporate strategies that endanger the nature of the university as a seat of culture, learning, open-mindedness and free speech.”
    The market system has distorted the University heritage, and a college education is now sold as an entry to economic success. Departments in the humanities are not friendly advocates of market genuflection and pulling funding is the current method of seizing control (capturing) without arguing the merits or stupidity of that action. Free thought is a hallmark of liberty and freedom itself, and the regimented path dependent business sector would rather produce zombies in suits. Recall that in the 50s business interests were attempting to straight jacket and stereotype the college “product” in assembly line fashion, which resulted in anti-intellectual rebellion and decades of counter-cultural diversity. If you assess the current generation that appears to be rallying behind Sanders, I think one might presume that a new generation is being propagated to rebel against these business gurus. Liberal Arts are not being dismissed from our culture, it is the University that is being dismissed from cultural authenticity in a crisis of representation. Consumer arts has serviced a class of current social elites, and their narrative is that we must take the path that sustains themselves. I think the upcoming generation will overwhelm that idea and in Old Baseball terms:
    Throw the Bums Out!

  4. Interesting essay and important on a number of fronts. I would point out that Harvey Mudd College, my alma mater, requires all students to take at least one third of their classes in the humanities and social sciences. As a leading STEM Institute, the founding board believed that scientists must be informed by the liberal arts, not just the sciences. Scientists and engineers who are only educated in STEM can make ilformed decisions. A broad education minimizes this risk.

  5. I think the republican abandonment of publicly funded education at all levels is motivated by their desire to create a vacuum that corporate and other wealthy private entities will then fill. They worship money and property above all else, and the idea of a progressive society where citizens themselves determine our course is anathema to them. Republican are the true elitists. We are seeing it now as James mentions with university endowments. This is one way creeping corporatism increases it’s control of society until the oligarchs are completely in charge. We are almost there. Sometimes I feel as though I’m living a bad sci-fi film.

  6. My university requires this, too. While at times it has felt like a distraction from my science studies, I do think it has made me a more socially critical thinker. I don’t just think about science for the funding and research, but what it implies for society/social progress in its application. I hope my classmates are thinking along the same lines, but I can’t know for sure.

  7. “Many people believe that higher education is a de facto scam. Trump University, Donald Trump’s real-estate institution, was a de jure one.”
    Read more at:
    Trump U ?
    Ultimately we must ask if this is actually the real end of history and if it is becoming a distinction without a difference under the course of University priorities set by market driven incentives alone?
    Inevitably it becomes a question of “degree” not of kind (refinement) and the matter of quantity over quality insidiously buys into the idea that “social cost” and cultural loss is one of economic equilibrium.

  8. It’s been called “The University in Exile” and a ‘University without Walls’ at different times and eras, but the idea of an open field humanities is clearly a potent view of contemporary responses to closed systems that dictate barriers to entry for the qualitative understanding of the human condition. The internet might converge as a University without Borders, of it may well be boggled down under trolls and toll booth pay to view cash firewalls. Time will tell.

    In the meantime, some efforts are being made to disseminate knowledge, communication and diligent and perhaps disciplined information in an open and public forum. Share this link to a great variety of anthropological blogs; and make the humanities your own design:

  9. Great article! This is the sentence that nails it:
    “This is what happens when you have a poor job market for new graduates, a social safety net in tatters, crumbling financial support for public higher education, an arms race in corporate fundraising by elite private schools, and a general takeover of the intellectual culture by corporate CEOs.”

  10. Thoughtful and balanced piece, James, but I’m one of the converted you are preaching to. My undergraduate degree (B.A., History) is now 40 years old and I’ve had a pretty decent career run in consulting. But that was then. I’d be hard-pressed to counsel young kids to follow their Philosophy or French Lit bliss — unless, as you bring up, they’re graduates of a top elite school, where McKinsey and Goldman Sachs will always be waiting and willing to take a shot on a promising young grad. It’s a shame it’s come down to this. Non-elite liberal arts colleges are effectively being forced to concentrate on business, accounting and “vocational” tracks that offer decent job prospects for often highly-indebted grads. Needless to say, History, Philosophy, English, Languages, etc., are all declining in enrollment and course offerings. Perhaps the best that struggling non-elite schools can do is 1. Restore or retain some reasonable level of liberal arts core requirements and 2. Ensure core requirement are sufficiently rigorous — and not watered-down or interdisciplinary “easy As” to boost GPAs of non-majors.

    If all this sounds a bit defeatist, maybe it is. But it strikes me that the heyday of the liberal arts education coincided with the unprecedented and broad-based prosperity that Thomas Piketty has dissected and that we may never see again. Between 1960 and 1980US society and the economy were vastly different — and much more restrictive to women and people of color, truth be told.

    It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine how various forces for change could converge to create a new, positive enabling environment for the liberal arts. What would it take? Minimally, a vibrant and stable economy, without which the current buyers market for talent will only grow more lopsided.

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