Why Study the Humanities?

David Brooks has a new op-ed defending the humanities as a worthy pursuit, despite the overall lack of economic utility. He writes that with the recent instability in the economy, the humanities have become less and less popular, a trend which will likely continue:

When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.

So it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.

Brooks wants to say that the humanities may not have immediate economic utility, but they do contribute to increased social utility: studying the humanities helps you read and write better (a clear advantage for any developed society), helps you conceptualize the world in terms of analogies and metaphors, and helps you understand and predict human behavior better (what Brooks calls the “Big Shaggy”).

But in light of Brooks’ general tendency in his op-eds, I am surprised he did not mention the biggest reason to study the humanities—it makes you happy. For the ancients, the happy life was the contemplative life. The contemplative life is the examined life, the life that is thoughtful, the life that is critical of prevailing social norms, the life that enjoys created things with depth and awareness. The contemplative life has historically been the goal of a liberal arts education. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, writes: “Every art is called liberal which is ordered to knowing; those which are ordered to some utility to be attained through action are called servile arts.“ John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of the University: “[The purpose of a liberal arts education is to] open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression.” Josep Pieper, in his marvelous essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” writes:

“Liberal arts,” therefore, are ways of human action, which have their justification in themselves; “servile arts” are ways of human action that have a purpose outside of themselves, a purpose, to be more exact, which consists in a useful effect that can be realized through praxis. The “liberality” or “freedom” of the liberal arts consists in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimized by a social function, by being “work.”

Professional education is a means to an end. It gives one the skills needed for practical pursuits in life like law, medicine, and engineering. But in the end, all of these pursuits are for the sake of something else. Why is it that you go to work each morning? It is probably not for the sake of going to work. Rather, it is for the sake of earning money, of supporting one’s family, and supporting society.

A liberal arts education, on the other hand, is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. The liberal arts teaches a person to inquire about critical questions like “who am I?” or “what is truth?” or “what is the nature of the good?” These are questions that have an inherent value. They are not means to an end, but rather, they are constitutive to what it means to live a good human life. The humanities, the liberal arts, therefore teach us how we human beings are meant to flourish, or as the ancients described it, achieve eudaimonia.

David Brooks hints at this at the end of his op-ed:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

But he still seems to want to find another end to the humanities, the end of understanding the “Big Shaggy” or figuring out why people do what they do. This is definitely part of the humanities, but in the end, the humanities are an end in themselves, not a means to something else. A person trained in the humanities may very well understand the “Big Shaggy,” but that isn’t why they study the humanities. They study the humanities, because in doing so, in the very act of inquiry taught by the humanities, they become happy and fully human.


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