Face-Off: In Favor of the Humanities

Are the humanities superior to STEM? (Photograph courtesy of University of Toledo)

Are the humanities superior to STEM? (Photograph courtesy of University of Toledo)

As you stumble out of a pregame in the River headed towards Frat Row—your vision blurry not only from the alcohol, but also from the bright pastel shorts that seem to illuminate the dark—you can always look over towards Thayer and see most of the lights on, and most rooms with students still working in them. While many of the stereotypes about STEM students being overworked, boring, and socially inept are true, they may not be the fairest assessments of those areas of study, nor do they necessarily prove that the humanities are superior fields.

The humanities—the study of Art History, Language studies, Classics, English, Film & Media Studies, Music, Philosophy, Religion, Studio Art, and Theater—are essential facets of modern education. These fields go beyond the rational limitations of physics and chemistry, demanding students to not only think critically, but to consider a variety of viewpoints. Art history, film, and literatures draw from cultures across the world, expanding the intellectual boundaries of students and engaging students with often overlooked expressions of thought and culture. A strictly rational perspective often misses the more nuanced externalities, whereas a truly talented mind can examine situations from multiple perspectives, synthesizing the information gathered from each. The foundation of the humanities is contemplation; the basis of these fields is thinking about how to think. By learning about how the great thinkers of the past have thought, students are equipped with the knowledge and critical approach to analyze, expand upon, and challenge the ideas that ancient civilizations of the world were founded upon.

In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson naïvely declared, “Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.” I strongly disagree with this unfounded and reckless statement. Emerson argues that great men are original thinkers, uncorrupted by the apathetic limitations of traditional study. But in his own argument, he contradicts himself. Emerson’s assertions and critiques of society are only founded and arguable because of his own study of the great works that he criticizes. Saying that “Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare” in effect says nothing—there will never be another Shakespeare. Emerson ignores the reality that the greatest thinkers in history were either educated or self-educated in the great works that came before them. Their own critical interpretation of those works trained their minds to articulate their own great works. Oscar Wilde, one of the most talented poets of the mid to late Nineteenth Century, was educated as a classicist at Trinity College. Prior to his formal education, William Faulkner was exposed to great English works by his mother, grandmother, and caretaker. For both of these men, their education in the humanities profoundly influenced their works.

While thought alone is and should be valuable, some do not view it as so. The most common criticism of the humanities is that the studies contained within the category are “unemployable majors.” While that assertion alone is indicative of a provincial mindset, it is also simply fallacious. The humanities are the very basis of culture. Major civilizations are defined by their literature, theater, and religion, not merely their technological advancements. Understanding a diverse range of cultures and languages opens the world to students, enabling them to take full advantage of international opportunities. A cosmopolitan perspective emphasizes intelligence and sophistication, and expresses mastery of either their own nation’s culture or those of other countries. Having a fluent grasp of a nation’s language alone denotes a level of respect for that country. With today’s globalized economy, employing people who not only know multiple languages, but also have a profound familiarity with foreign cultures, is invaluable. Speaking Russian to a Russian businessperson is valuable, but being able to engage in a conversation about the history and culture of Russia beyond a survey level is invaluable.

A skilled financier with a knowledge of English, German, and French languages, literatures, and arts is far more valuable to Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs than one who merely knows how to calculate. It is easy for the banking industry to teach any of its recruits the vocation of finance, but it is far harder to teach a culturally illiterate MIT graduate how to convince a French filmmaker to entrust their wealth with one bank and not a different one. Numbers are crucial evidence in a presentation, but ultimately the core of deal making is trust. Trust begins with genuine human connection. Two people from two different nations are much more likely to build a faithful bond if they can speak each other’s languages, have some level of respect for each other’s cultures, and make a conscious effort to understand each other beyond their business. While sports like golf and squash are often used to build these sort of bonds, going to ballet performances, operas, and symphonies can similarly strengthen a business relationship.

In a recent article in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz claimed, “An educational system that relegates most people to technical or vocational training is a system designed for an oligarchy.” While it is likely true that extensive education in the humanities is “not for everyone,” it is still important that every American has some degree of exposure to these fields. Exposure and education in the humanities and vocational training in fields like engineering are not mutually exclusive. One can be a carpenter or an electrician and also have an affinity for East Asian theater and an understanding of classical philosophy. The humanities are more than merely promoting literacy in languages, as they train students in critical thought. While they may not always be directly applicable to a job, these studies and the skills acquired through them are always relevant to life. Critical analysis, interpretation, and literacy define human perception. If perception is, in effect, reality, then it is of utmost importance that every American has an adequate skill set to navigate an era corrupted by lies, “fake news,” and deceit at every level of government, media, and society. Those skills are not derived from chemistry, mathematics, or physics; those skills are best acquired through the humanities. This era is not the time that America’s education system should be replacing non-Western literature classes with computer science courses, or removing the humanities from required courses or distribution requirements. STEM and the humanities can co-exist, but STEM must never supplant the formal education of the humanities, for the day it does is the day that America is doomed to utter ignorance and apathy.