August 8, 2013

Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His new book, “Why Teach?,” comes out this month.

Humanities professors have come up with a seemingly foolproof defense against those who trash degrees in, say, English literature or philosophy as wasted tuition dollars, one-way tickets to unemployment. Oh no, we say — the humanities prepare students to succeed in the working world just as well as all those alleged practical majors, maybe even better.

We offer tools of thought. We teach our students to understand and analyze complex ideas. We help them develop powers of expression, written and verbal. The lengthy essays we assign enhance their capacity to do independent work. At our best, we teach them how to reason — and reasoning undergirds every successful professional project.

In the short term, such a defense may seem effective. But it is dead wrong.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a distinguished humanities scholar recently wrote with pride about a student of his, a classics major, who wrote brilliantly on Spinoza yet plans to become a military surgeon. A recent article in Business Insider offered “11 Reasons to Ignore the Haters and Major in the Humanities.” For example: You’ll be able to do things machines can’t do in a service economy. You’ll learn to explain and sell an idea. You’ll stand out in the crowd in the coming STEM glut. In the same publication, Bracken Darrell, the chief executive of Logitech, talked about why he loves hiring English majors: “The best CEOs and leaders are extremely good writers and have this ability to articulate and verbalize what they’re thinking.”

Some of my colleagues are getting quite aggressive about this line of reasoning. “I think we actually do a better job getting people ready for law school and business than the people in economics do,” a good friend who teaches humanities told me not long ago.

It seems that there’s no problem, then. Want success? Come on in, our tent flap is open.

But the humanities are not about success. They’re about questioning success — and every important social value. Socrates taught us this, and we shouldn’t forget it. Sure, someone who studies literature or philosophy is learning to think clearly and write well. But those skills are means to an end. That end, as Plato said, is learning how to live one’s life. “This discussion is not about any chance question,” Plato’s Socrates says in “The Republic,” “but about the way one should live.”

That’s what’s at the heart of the humanities — informed, thoughtful dialogue about the way we ought to conduct life. This dialogue honors no pieties: All positions are debatable; all values are up for discussion. Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks for the spirit of the humanities in “Self-Reliance” when he says that we “must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.” He will not accept what the world calls “good” without consideration: He’ll look into it as Socrates did and see if it actually is good. When Montaigne doubts received opinion and asks himself what he really knows and what he does not, he is acting in the spirit of the humanities. “Que sais-Je?” or “What do I know?” was his motto.

Socrates, who probably concentrates the spirit of the humanities better than anyone, spent his time rambling around Athens asking people if they thought they were living virtuous lives. He believed that his city was getting proud and lazy, like an overfed thoroughbred horse, and that it needed him, the stinging gadfly, to wake it up. The Athenians had to ask themselves if the lives they were leading really were good. Socrates didn’t help them work their way to success; he helped them work their way to insight and virtue.

Now, Americans are in love with success — success for their children in particular. As a parent of sons in their 20s, I understand this and sympathize with it. But our job as humanists isn’t to second whatever values happen to be in place in society. We’re here to question those values and maybe — using the best that has been thought and said — offer alternatives.

We commonly think in binaries. Vanilla is the opposite of chocolate. The opposite of success — often defined today as high-status work and a big paycheck — is failure. But the great books tell us that this is not necessarily true. Think of Henry David Thoreau’s life of voluntary poverty and his dedication to nature and writing. Some of my students have cultivated values similar to Thoreau’s and have done so at least in part through the study of the humanities. They’ve become environmental activists and park rangers. Or they have worked modestly paid jobs to spend all the time they can outdoors. They are not failures. Nor are those who work for the poor, or who explore their artistic talents, or who enlist in the military. These students are usually not in pursuit of traditional success. They have often been inspired by work they’ve encountered in humanities courses — and, for a time at least, they are choosing something other than middle-class corporate life.

The humanities are not against conventional success; far from it. Many of our students go on to distinguished careers in law and business. But I like to think they do so with a fuller social and self-awareness than most people. For they have approached success as a matter of debate, not as an idol of worship. They have considered the options. They have called “success” into question and, after due consideration, they have decided to pursue it. I have to imagine that such people are far better employees than those who have moved lockstep into their occupations. I also believe that self-aware, questioning people tend to be far more successful in the long run.

What makes humanities students different isn’t their power of expression, their capacity to frame an argument or their ability to do independent work. Yes, these are valuable qualities, and we humanities teachers try to cultivate them. But true humanities students are exceptional because they have been, and are, engaged in the activity that Plato commends — seeking to understand themselves and how they ought to lead their lives.

If some of our current defenders have their way, the humanities will survive, but in name only. The humanities will become synonymous with unreflective training for corporate success.

What would Socrates think?

mwe@virginia.edu

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