It’s getting close to Thanksgiving, which means family members will descend on you like Hitchcock’s black crows, peppering you with questions about your life, your relationships, and, of course, your career. For those of us who studied English or history, French or Mediterranean studies, these types of questions will no doubt spiral into lectures on “the real world” and “marketable skills.”
You will perhaps try to explain how literature is what you love, that Milton and Safran Foer make your world go ‘round, and that when your parents were going through a divorce or you lost your best friend or you waved goodbye to your family as you left to college, it was Rumi or Keats that kept you emotionally afloat, it was the humanities that gave you perspective and propelled you to see the world as a place worth living in. And while you may feel as much connection with statistics, finance, or engineering as you do with your estranged auntie gorging herself across the table, somehow these are subjects that nearly everyone now pursues.
At Pomona College, one of the foremost liberal arts schools in the U.S., less than 1% of students graduated with an English degree last May. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. There is a rather depressing, albeit growing belief that college is “about the degree” — the same excuse that justifies skipping class or exerting only a minimum effort on assignments and exams, where students do just enough to get the grade, but little more. Many now view college as, at its essence, only a conduit to a good job, and if you say you’re studying painting or photography, someone is bound to roll their eyes, certain that you’re only biding your time until you’re allowed access to your trust fund.
One of the key arguments in favor of studying the humanities is that it fundamentally improves people. These apologists cite the studies that show reading fiction builds empathy, and they’ll push the idea that a literary or artistic savvy makes one more understanding and compassionate. The other claim is that the humanities bestow certain intangible, future benefits. Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in The New York Times, the gift of studying the humanities “is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” These arguments are rather weak though and both strike me as a touch saccharine, as a little too feel-good-y and not at all useful when sitting at the dinner table attempting to defend your life.
But reflect on what the wealthy do after they’ve made their fortune. They go to the opera and ballet. They build themselves libraries. They read their children poetry and hire governesses to speak to them in French. The eventual life goal of so many people — after the banking business has succeeded, after the stock values have skyrocketed, after the retirement fund has hit the magic number — is to enjoy books, theater, art, history, to tap into their very humanity.
Think of all the people who have always wanted to write a novel, but they haven’t had the time. You could fill the Library of Congress one thousand times over with those who’ve said they were just going to work for a little bit, save some money, then do what they really loved. But, almost invariably, they end up waiting until they’ve retired, and while their bank account might be fuller because of it they are lacking in vitality — too many years of doing something of little interest for its purported stability and respectability always takes its toll. The humanities major has merely chosen to reorder his life, so that what he is passionate about comes first. Majoring in English or fine art or creative writing has no end goal; rather, it is about finding one’s one humanity. It is about realizing that you’ve only one life to live and that to put off your interests until your time is about to expire is to order things rather poorly.
Now many might say that eating your dessert first is bad form. There are many writers and anthropologists and historians who have lived with little money and great ardor because they craved interestingness first and stability second. But few have lived pathetically. Few have woken up each morning to pursue that which is boring, that which is disastrously uninteresting, that which is done to grind together the gears of industry with little eventual satisfaction outside of a paycheck.
So it is therefore wrong to even ask why we should study the humanities. There are no whys, no explanations needed. Not everything should have a finite end goal. We cannot always be production-oriented. There must be some semblance of satisfaction in our lives. Sometimes we must be pleasure-oriented, and so much of that distinctly human contentment is derived from culture, from books, from the arts.
Someone at the dinner table might shrug, saying something subtly condescending like, “I guess you could teach with that degree.” But hopefully you’ve learned that doing things purely for the sake of money, for some perverse sense of prestige, for a life in which you pursue the things that do not interest you, would be a life lost. Euphoria is found when the bowlines of expectations are cast off and a sea of passion, while tumultuous and unstable, is taken on with excitement and wide eyes. A seemingly stable outer shell too often equates with emptiness on the inside, and while we’re constantly pushed to robotically crunch numbers for corporations and sit through courses we’ve little care about, there must be some imperative to pursue pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Amidst a production-over-pleasure world, the humanities let us feel, well, human again.