One of first things my father exclaimed when I returned from the USA with an engineering degree in hand was ‘So, now can you fix my refrigerator?’ Some part of me wanted to believe that he meant it as a joke, but another part realized that in fact he was being serious; an education is an investment for future returns that must manifest themseves in practical achievements and solid job/working capabilities.

Why else would you want to send your child for an education?

The New York Times recently carried a small piece by Patricia Cohen called In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth. It regurgitated arguments against a humanities education that we have been hearing for decades, perhaps since the very birth of the field itself.

And these are arguments that we all of course well understand; at a time when millions have lost their jobs, other millions confront the possibility of being laid off, and still more, mostly students, prepare to enter the ‘workforce’ it is natural and indeed common sense to question whether one has employable skills. Particularly in the USA where most of its graduating body will be burdened with large college loans that become payable within weeks after they leave their institutions.

(When did an education become bondage? More about that in a separate post.)

Ms Cohen aptly in facts asks:

But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency.

Derek Bok, ex-President of Harvard University and a man we would expect can defend a liberal arts education on grounds other than ‘practical’ is quoted as saying ‘“The humanities has a lot to contribute to the preparation of students for their vocational lives.’

Despite an attempt to remind us of the importance of a Humanities education in helping students navigate life beyond the pay check, Ms Cohen ends her piece with this ominous note:

As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century…the province of the wealthy.

That may be unfortunate but inevitable…The essence of a humanities education — reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming “to grips with the question of what living is for” — may become “a great luxury that many cannot afford.”

Unfortunate indeed!

I believe that a humanities education is today more important than ever before!

There, I have said it. So now let me explain.

I think that Mark Danner said it best in his commencement address to the graduating students of the Department of English of the University of California at Berkeley in 2005.

Titled ‘What Are You Going To Do With It!‘, he argued that:

whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt.

And this is a most difficult time-the most difficult I remember-to have those skills.

Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard.

Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world, whether it’s your government doing the telling, or your boss, or even your family or friends, and what you yourself can’t help but understand about that world-this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have. It can be burdensome and awkward and it won’t always make you happy.

We are living through the aftermath of one of the most corrupt, venal, covert and violent American administration never elected to power. During those 8 years we have seen our finest journalists, intellectuals, politicians and citizens derailed by lies, obfuscations and the seductions of access to power.

And as citizens we have been convinced to support torture, accept the loss of our civil liberties, celebrate pre-emptive war, condone war crimes, remain quiet about the rape of a nation, look away from nepotism, ignore cronyism, tolerate blather masquerading as politics, surrender our citizen’s rights, believe that the enrichment of the few is in fact ‘liberty’, believe in ‘ghosts’ called ‘Islamofascism’, gamble with our pensions, imprison ourselves in criminal mortage scams, watch our kids die in wars of greed, walk away from our jobs without support or rights, tolerate being unemployed, toleratebeing homeless/evicted, privatize the National Treasury, rape our protected parks, devalue community, suspect civic duty, consider the lunacies of the christian right, fear every thing, accept a dysfunctional health care system as ‘best of class’, believe that only ‘the individual’ matters while society as a whole does not. And a lot more.

To say nothing about the ecological disaster unfolding around us, a clear consequence of exclusively technical minds unable to balance technological progress with ecological responsibility.

To say nothing of the financial disaster unfolding around us, a consequence of corruption and greed in an industry where the word ‘ethical’ and ‘asshole’ are synonyms.

To say nothing of the loss of our civil liberties and the abuse of our democratic institutions by a lunatic cabal called The Bush Administration, and their imitators across the globe, a consequence of a citizenry too easy befuddled by slogans and sound bites, and too involved in its ‘technical’ pursuits to give a damn.

One would think that if there ever was a time for ‘..learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt’, it would be now!

This issue – the role and value of the humanities in public and civic life, occupied Edward Said for many decades. His two books on the issue, Representations of the Intellectual and Humanism and Democratic Criticism make for essential reading for those trying to understand why we should even bother with subjects like philosophy.

In Representations of the Intellectual, Said quotes from C. Wright Mills’ Power, Politics , and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, reminding us:

The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things. Fresh perception now involved the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications (i.e. modern systems of representation) swamp us. These worlds of mass art and mass-thought are increasingly geared to the demands of politics. That is why it is in politics that intellectual solidarity and effort must be centered. It the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience.

You may want to re-read that.

In Humanism and Democratic Criticism he goes on to add:

That the humanities as a whole have lost their eminence in the university is…undoubtedly true. As Masao Miyoshi has claimed…the American university has been corporatized and to a certain degree annexed by defense, medical, biotechnical, and corporate interests, who are much more concerned with funding projects in the natural sciences than they are in the humanities. Miyoshi goes to to say that the humanities…have fallen into irrelevance and quasi-medieval fussiness, ironically enough because of the fashionability of newly relevant fields like postcolonialism, ethnic studies, cultural studies, and the like. This has effectively detoured the humanities from its rightful concern with the critical investigation of values, history, and freedom,[my italics] turning it…into a whole factory of word-spinning…and specialties, many of them identity based, that in their jargon…only address like-minded people, acolytes, and other academics.

If you think that that is just hog-wash, check out this story unfolding at Harvard Medical School! And for an even greater depth and insight, read this fantastic piece by Marcia Angell called Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption where she also reveals the involvement and influence of pharmaceutical companies have at American universities and colleges.

Our education programs, even the ‘acceptable’ ones are under attack by corporate and industry interests.

So who is educating whom, about what?

Martha Nussbaum wrote an entire book arguing for a greater stress on a humanities education. Called Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education she presented a series of case studies of a new generation of creative educators in America, and various arguments for the singular importance, nay, centrality of a humanities education for the future of American democracy and society.

In an essay discussing the book, she points out that a ‘liberal’ education:

“”liberates” students’ minds from their bondage to mere habit and tradition, so that students can increasingly take responsibility for their own thought and speech. In his letter on liberal education, Seneca argues that only this sort of education will develop each person’s capacity to be fully human, by which he means self-aware, self-governing, and capable of respecting the humanity of all our fellow human beings, no matter where they are born, no matter what social class they inhabit, no matter what their gender or ethnic origin.”

But what prevents us from understanding this?

Nothing more complex than fear. As Nussbaum explains:

Liberal education is in one way frightening. For it requires opening the personality to change and questioning, to the possibility of moving out of the security of one’s own comforting habits. In this time of fear, it is all too easy… to resist this challenge, to look for comfort to a less challenging idea of education, rooted in pre-professional and economic aspirations. To close one’s “inner eyes” is comforting; to open them with an educated compassion is difficult and painful.”

The New York Times may not understand why all this matters. But then again, this is the newspaper that for example showed us during the build up to the war on Iraq that the pursuit of journalistic truth and the execution of the responsibilities of a democracy’s 4th estate were just another “…great luxury that many cannot afford.”

In a world where power has increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques to ‘convince’ a citizenry of its priorities, we need more who can think, question and understand.

We are attempting today to extricate ourselves from decades of crass corruption and scandal. America today stands at one of its lowest political, economic and cultural moments.

It is now, more than ever, that we need a generation that knows ‘…how to read, … how to question, … how to doubt.’

UPDATE: 25th July 2009: Chris Hedge’s new book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy & the Triumph of Spectacle includes an impassioned plea for the need to centralize a humanities education. He argues, similar to what I have argued here, that it is the inability to ask the larger questions, something that one learns through a strong humanities foundation, that we have ended up in the economic and other crisis we face. He argues that the increasing focus on a for-profit vocational training reduces individuals to knowing simply how to ‘maintain the status quo’, to jimmy a few things around to keep them going. Hence the incredible financial bail outs that maintain the very system that eat itself and the country’s wealth! You can hear an interview with Chris Hedges here & here.