An(other) Argument for the Humanities

Bonus points for the literary allusion
in this illustration

This recent lament for the humanities comes from Harvard Magazine. The author, James Engell, was a favorite professor of mine--and my dissertation advisor. His article includes charts and data that drive home the point that interest in majoring in the humanities has been falling for decades. And he makes an argument that society is the worse for it.

I remember the Head of the English Department at West Point, Peter Stromberg, making a similar argument while I was there. And I agree with them both that the world needs more humanities education.

And why not? When I was at West Point, we all took a core curriculum that was heavily weighted toward STEM courses, and for the seven (of 42) classes I could choose, I chose humanities (specifically philosophy, history, and literature). And then, when it came time for graduate school, I again chose a humanities degree (English).

But--and this is a huge caveat--I had a luxury other people don't usually have. My West Point and Harvard educations were paid for by the taxpayers (the Great American Public, as we used to say at West Point). At West Point and Harvard, I got tuition, room, and board--and a stipend (half a lieutenant's pay at West Point and full captain's pay at Harvard). My value proposition was very different than those who have to come up with the cash themselves (or through their parents or grandparents). I had no student loans whatsoever.

And I also had a job. In fact, after West Point, I was required to serve five years in the military in exchange for my education. And it was no unpaid internship. I got paid. And again, after Harvard, the Army required me to teach and then serve for an additional six years. You can imagine the bewilderment of some of my Harvard classmates when I explained to them that, in exchange for a graduate eduction, I was forced to get a job using that education--while they were worried about how they would ever land such a thing.

So there's that.

And then, once I retired from the Army and looked for work, I realized that all those STEM classes allowed me to make a very decent salary while living in my home town. And that salary allowed me to raise my children and to pursue teaching and writing--not full-time, mind you, but enough, or nearly so. 

But let's think about West Point for a moment, since it was the source of those STEM courses. When I attended, the core curriculum there was the same for everyone--and that core curriculum was about 80% of our education. We had precious little choice in the matter. And amid the calculus, differential equations, probability and statistics, chemistry, physics, computer programming, electrical engineering, civil engineering, and systems engineering, we also were required to take composition, literature, philosophy, psychology, foreign language, history, and law. And boxing. Don't forget boxing.

I am grateful for the education I got there (not so much for some of the sideshow around it). And I think it's because of the core. I don't know how many people need to major in the humanities, but I think we as a society would benefit if people who claimed a college education had more humanities. And colleges could require it--even of their data scientists and engineers. 

Click here to read Engell's piece in Harvard Magazine.

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