I remember when my engineer father found out that I was taking a philosophy degree in college. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked. And he had a right to ask: He was paying for it.

And somehow I knew that the right answer–the one a philosophy student would naturally give–probably wouldn’t do. I still wonder what he would have said had I responded, “in order to lead a meaningful life.” One thing I know is that it wouldn’t have been pretty.

“Not on my dime you’re not,” I can imagine him saying. I’m guessing that he didn’t mind as much as he might have in the end, knowing that I was double majoring in economics.

A lot of people view the humanities (history, literature, philosophy) as nice things to study if you’ve got the time and tuition money. I mean, reading Shakespeare and Gibbon are fine diversions, but, really, what can you do with them? Nobody’s going to hire you because you read Hamlet, are they? And reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire won’t alleviate the decline and fall of your job prospects when the interviewer asks what you majored in.


As a matter of fact, it’s not right. For most jobs it doesn’t matter what you majored in as long as you finished a degree. In fact, a humanities or liberal arts degree is even beneficial when it comes to leadership positions even in business.

But more importantly, what are the larger consequences to our society of an education system that ignores the subjects that best prepare us to govern ourselves?

As Jim Haas of Webster University argues, the humanities are necessary for good citizenship.

In totalitarian societies, schools indoctrinate; in democracies, schools illuminate—or should. In the Western tradition, illumination is the purpose of the liberal arts and sciences as the common core of learning for those who would govern themselves. “Liberal” derives from the Latin root liberalis, “worthy of a free person,” and the humanities and natural sciences give students the tools of liberty.

Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has spoken of liberal education as “the soul of democracy” because it prepares students to “appreciate the difference between earning a living and actually living; to cultivate more than a passing familiarity with ethics, history, science, and culture; and to perceive the tragic chasm between the world as it is and the world as it could and ought to be.”

Read the rest here.

Categories: Exordium


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