Posted by: Kristen Hicks | June 17, 2011

The Value of the Humanities

I went to an expensive liberal arts college on the East Coast, the kind you often hear derided in articles questioning the value of expensive higher education that reaps limited professional rewards.  I’ll be paying for this education for many years to come and do wish I’d better understood the full implications of my loans and their interest a little earlier in the process, but even if I had, I’d have gone to the same school and sought out the same classes and experiences.  I’ll never regret the education I got, although I may bemoan those loan payments every month.

So, what makes it so valuable?  Why do I feel that I got so much more out of four years studying literature, philosophy, film history and foreign languages than I would have learning a specific trade that would have more directly led to job security and a steady income (and likely much less debt)? For me, that question’s complicated, but easy to answer: I feel like it made me a better person and a better thinker.

On the professional end, it made me better at writing, communicating my thoughts well and analyzing problems.  It  gave me a much greater confidence in my sense of self and ability to take on life.  Every job I’ve had since college I’ve been able to: pick up a great variety of tasks; balance many responsibilities at once; handle my time well; think creatively about the best way to address the issues placed in front of me; and, perhaps most importantly, get along with and work well with other people.

I remember once being asked by a colleague who preferred reading non-fiction what I felt the value was in works of fiction and to me it seems so obvious: fiction teaches you empathy.  We live in a society where it’s so easy to fall into the common trap of us vs them, to think about people in terms of how their existence affects us politically without seeing them as individuals, or to not think of them at all (when was the last time you thought much about what a prison inmates life is like, for example?).  This is much harder to do if you spend a considerable amount of time letting your mind be taken over by characters in different contexts than your own.  It teaches you to make more of an effort to understand the world as it looks and is for others and it makes you care more about the experiences of people you have no direct relationship to.

I think that really speaks to part of what makes the humanities so important.  It teaches people to see the world in a more big picture way, to consider how our actions and decisions influence people beyond us.  I wish more of our society saw fit to value this as much as I do.

This post was largely inspired by a couple of articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so.  This article in the New Yorker talks at length about how an education in the humanities compares to other focuses in higher education.  This piece from the Chronicle gives current students a chance to explain why they embraced the decision to study liberal arts rather than something more “practical”, and they all speak poignantly on the subject and, hopefully, prove some of what they’re saying to any possible skeptics in the process.

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