The Case for Humanistic Education


"The intellectual. It is wholly and completely so. As such, it is the only kind of university worth having. I believe that it will accomplish greater political and professional results than one that is devoted to current events or vocational training."

--Robert Maynard Hutchins,

University of Chicago president, 1929-1951

The National Association of Scholars recently published a study of the country's top 50 colleges and universities which garnered much press and which "Great Books" program founder Robert Maynard Hutchins likely would have agreed with. Its graphic title left little to the imagination: "The Dissolution of General Education, 1914-1993." Citing examples such as the recent debate at Georgetown University over whether to allow English majors to graduate without having read Shakespeare, it asserted (in not the first statement of its kind) that "institutions of higher learning have generally abandoned most of the core academic requirements once considered essential to a liberal arts education."

USA Today recently offered a different perspective. It quoted last month a 1995 poll of 502 high school guidance counselors by Collegiate Information Services of Greenwich, Conn. Seventy-two percent of the counselors say colleges don't pay enough attention to career training, while a mere 45 percent say colleges do not sufficiently emphasize a classic liberal arts education.


The ideological differences between the guidance counselors and the Association of Scholars can be distilled into one tantalizing word: money. When the counselors said colleges do not offer enough career training, they likely meant that not enough students are getting lucrative jobs once they graduate. And when the Association wrote that institutions have abandoned many liberal arts requirements, its members were surely thinking not only of liberal arts schools that have abandoned core curricula altogether but also of once-humanistic institutions that have bowed to the twin idols of vocational training and pre-professionalism.

Can liberal arts colleges and universities such as Harvard reconcile the dilemma between the seeming impracticality of a liberal arts education and the demand for specialized skills in an work force ever more technologically complex? Can they convince the rest of the country (and humanities majors' parents, who wonder just what that $100,000 tuition is going toward) that a humanistic education is valuable even though it does not create ready-made employees? Or must liberal arts schools resign themselves to strictures of practicality and subscribe to the principle of "operational utility," defined by Michael R. Harris as a mandate implying "that the raison d'etre of a college or university consists in serving the immediate needs of society"?

Last week, as I was getting my hair cut in Harvard Square, the stylist asked what my concentration was. When I told her it was American history and literature, I immediately added a sarcastic, "really practical, I know," to stave off any such comments from her. It's a reflex by now. She observed that many Harvard students major in such seemingly impractical subjects and wondered whether Harvard even offers more "useful" majors such as journalism or accounting. I told her no; she said, "I guess the Harvard name is all you need." I said I certainly hoped so.

Even if Harvard students have doubts about the value of our college education, we know that for a mere $100,000, we can stamp the Harvard name on our resumes. We hope that will be enough. But what if it is not? And what about other liberal arts schools, such as Swarthmore or the University of Chicago, where the curriculum is just as good as Harvard's (if not better), but whose names do not spark the same recognition?

Harvard does have some concentrations that could loosely be called pre-professional. Economics can be preparation for a business career (but then, so can English or physics); government is the major of choice for budding politicians; any number of humanities and social science departments contain dozens of would-be lawyers; and a science degree can be the first step to a lucrative job in industry or technology. But none of these is explicitly vocational; none is comparable to Northwestern's journalism program or MIT's classes in accounting.

According to many newspaper reports, employers are looking for students who have a good deal of work experience in their field while in college, which can mean not only summer internships and extracurricular activities (the only options open to Harvard students) but some pre-professional, well-reputed schools' required internships. The most sought-after graduates nationwide this year, according to an article in last month's Kansas City Star, are those in engineering, computer science, business, health professions and the sciences. Those having the hardest time have degrees in liberal arts, communications and the social sciences.

Employers understandably value real-world experience and skills, and students are incorporating that message into their college planning. Simply witness the recent backlash against joining Phi Beta Kappa by many graduates who have either never heard of it or do not care enough about its guiding liberal arts principle, "Philosophia Biou Kybernetes," or "Love of wisdom is the guide of life." A love of wisdom has sadly metamorphosed into a love of financial security.

There is little need to extol the virtues of a liberal arts education, especially to a Harvard audience. Its benefits include the ability to formulate a cogent argument, to understand the history of society and current events, to realize connections among different fields and disciplines and--most importantly--to write well. I admit that Harvard is not fulfilling all of those ideals. Its Core curriculum, currently under scrutiny by a faculty-student committee, does not even include a survey class on Western civilization because of a bureaucratic runaround last year. Its Expository Writing program does not necessarily teach students how to write. And because of the heavy requirements for graduating with honors (History and Literature demands 16 courses, half the 32 needed for graduation), it is difficult to both navigate the burdensome Core and take a wide breadth of courses. Yet for those who search, a wide liberal arts education is there for the finding; and learning for the sake of learning is highly valued, at least among the faculty.

But how can we convince the nation that a seemingly impractical liberal arts education is the best way to educate tomorrow's leaders and lay the ground for a thoughtful society?

One way is by encouraging prominent figures to give money to further the study of the liberal arts. A good example was author James Michener's $2 million gift to Swarthmore in 1984, about which he said, "One reason I wanted to make the gift [was] to remind young people that the liberal arts are still the traditional highway to great thinking and the organization of a life."

Another is to ensure that graduates with a good grounding in liberal arts but little practical training can get jobs that utilize their thinking skills. Already, management consulting and investment banking companies come to Harvard every year en masse to recruit seniors, often relying more on grades and creative thinking than on business experience. While these jobs may not be right for every liberal arts major, the employers' approach of hiring well-educated but not well-trained people is sound.

Lastly, colleges must take it upon themselves to reinstitute curricular requirements that provide every undergraduate with a basis in Western civilization. Only then can we both understand other cultures' influence on our contemporary world and gain a common knowledge to tie together history, biology, mathematics and English majors once they leave school. Only then will colleges set an example to employers about the value of a truly liberal curriculum. And college presidents must take the lead.

I am not suggesting a return to Robert Maynard Hutchins' "Great Books" program, but I am urging an increased effort by liberal arts colleges to make their ideals nationally known and their leadership nationally felt. Then, perhaps, the dichotomy between majoring in the humanities and landing a well-paying job will narrow. Then, perhaps, students will not wonder what Phi Beta Kappa is but will take to heart its motto of wisdom.

Sarah J. Schaffer '97 is editorial chair of The Crimson.

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