Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto
(I am human: I consider nothing human alien to me)
-Terence, Heauton Timorumenos
As I discussed in a previous column, the humanities crisis may not be as dire as it has seemed in the national media. However, the humanities do face serious opposition. As higher education approaches an inflection point over the coming years, we must consider what place we want the humanities to occupy in our world.
The argument against the humanities, as one Harvard student put it in The Wall Street Journal, goes like this: “We do have to worry about living after graduation. I don’t want to be doing what I love and be homeless.”
Much of the dialogue on college campuses makes the same assumption: There is a distinction between the useless humanities (studied out of love) and the other useful (but less fun to study) subjects like economics, business or the sciences.
In truth, a major in the humanities will bring rewards in two key ways, and more students at Georgetown should pursue one instead of some other, allegedly practical, majors.
To see the full value of the humanities, we must widen our view of college beyond its role as a path into the job market. The point of college is not just to get a job, especially at a university like ours, which boasts a rich tradition of Jesuit values clearly not “necessary” for a college degree.
To study a set of texts and authors who deal with complex human issues and have stood the test of time will serve you far beyond college and make you a more interesting — and interested — person.
The words of the Roman playwright Terence, above, probably get the point across. Humanities students understand a cultural dialogue broader than their immediate circumstance. This is what David Brooks means when he refers to the humanities cultivating “the most inward and elemental part of a person.” You simply cannot get this from a major in accounting.
Yet, as important as these personal reasons are, they are not the most compelling ones to me.
The binary distinction between the useless, passion-filled humanities and the other useful, emotionless subjects collapses under further investigation. Humanities subjects teach skills that are actually economically advantageous in the job market. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the rise of philosophy classes in MBA programs, featuring Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business among others.
Business schools, the most bottom-line, focused educational institutions in our culture, are recognizing that the humanities bring value beyond the technical skills required for a successful career in business. The ability to read critically, ask the right questions, interpret complexity and articulate a well-designed argument will always be in demand.
Smart kids from Georgetown get jobs. This has always been the case and will probably not change soon. Regardless of whether you study English or accounting, if you excel (no pun intended), you will find a job. But most Georgetown students want more than just a job after their four years here. With an education in the humanities, we can walk away from college with both a marketable and fulfilling lifelong habit of critical thought.