Why I study the humanities

May 26, 2009

By Christian Hines, a junior at Indiana University and a summer intern at the Indiana Humanities Council

To ardent supporters of the humanities, defending the worth of a degree in English or Art History can feel something like an exercise in futility; for with the rise of the great American industrialist in the 20th century, our nation increasingly became one of workers and producers, rather than poets and philosophers. But in the midst of an economic tailspin, and as American universities scramble to churn out scientists and engineers at the rate of countries like China and Japan, confronting the ultra-utilitarian concept of education and speaking up for the value of the humanities is more important than ever.

The most common accusation lobbed against the humanities is that they are inherently impractical. Now if by “practical” one means that the underlying goal of any educational endeavor should be to stimulate the economy or produce a tangible good, then yes—the humanities have little value. But to embrace such a cynical understanding of learning is to scoff at a long-held and still-valued conviction of scholars, scientists, and even CEOs; namely, that an education should prepare one personally and intellectually for a life of service and leadership. As the late Winston Churchill noted, “the first duty of a university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities.” 

This isn’t to say the humanities are for everyone. But for those who want to understand the ideas and events that have shaped the world in which we now live, and which we hope to improve, there is no choice but to study the humanities. I’m majoring in history and political thought not because I expect to land a six-figure job out of college, but because I want to form my own conception of society and the state. I want to understand how the human race has arrived at this point in history and develop my own convictions of where it should go from here. I want to form my own thoughts and develop the skills to convey them. 

In short, I study the humanities because I want to think.

One comment

  1. Interesting that you might be in the minority, Christian. See this NY Times blog post on what high school valedictorians will be studying. Looks like the women are more likely to choose the humanities…http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/valedictorians/

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