Richards: The Inherent Value of Humanities



Titian: Europa and the Bull

By Connor Richards

When deciding a major, one of the first things students ask themselves is how what they choose will come across to others. At least, this was one of the first things I asked myself. For students like me, the opinions of others towards a prospective field are as, or more important than the student’s opinions themselves.

This is why it was difficult to declare — and own — a communication major. Unlike science and math fields like chemical engineering, theoretical physics and computer programming, communications is not a field to brag about. It doesn’t get the type of praise or awe that STEM fields do; it doesn’t evoke feelings of pride or self-appreciation when you respond to the question, “What are you studying?”.

Pursuing a college education is viewed as an admirable thing. Nonetheless, humanities fields like philosophy, communication, English, history, religious studies and linguistics are seen as a waste of time and money. After all, no literary analysis is going to create the next iPhone, and no interpretive study is going to contribute to the development of self-driving cars. And if your education isn’t going to guarantee you a decent-paying job upon graduation, what are you paying for anyway?

The answer, put in classic humanities fashion, is complicated. It is true that studying ancient or contemporary philosophy is unlikely to land you a glamorous career, or a luxurious car, or the respect of those around you. Nonetheless, a high salary and social status are not the end-all determinant factors of whether something is valuable. If anything is to be described as having “inherent” value, it is the study of human history, values and culture.

The movement away from humanities has had a considerable impact on American life and culture. Mark Slouka, a novelist who received a Ph.D in literature from Columbia University, wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 2009 that this shift has contributed to a systematic decline in humanness.

“The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be,” Slouka wrote. “Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their ‘product’ not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their ‘success’ something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.”

I read Slouka’s essay the first week of my freshman year in a required intermediate writing class. It has stuck with me ever since, and I’d like to think it has played a role in my academic decision making up to this point. Slouka’s reasoning has helped me justify my interests in ethics, argumentation and writing instead of hiding them. I’m no longer ashamed that the area I love and excel in is seen as an “easy” or unimportant area of study. I don’t shy away from questions about my major because, internally, I am confident in the value of what I study.

I graduate in the spring and am lucky enough to say I am satisfied with the academic path I chose. I hope future students can say the same, and that they never neglect their interests solely based on the viewpoints of others.