The Handiness of Humanities

As a student at Swarthmore College, I cannot count how many times I have heard about the benefits of a well-rounded, liberal arts education. Our distribution requirements attempt to ensure that all students gain exposure to subjects outside their major. Students can and do pursue a wide range of interests, both academic and non-academic. In this respect, Swarthmore students — and almost all students at liberal arts colleges — are truly well-rounded. We are curious individuals who collectively enjoy learning about everything from stars to semantics. Yet, in our attitude towards the practicality of certain subjects, I would argue that we are not “well-rounded”.  As a whole, neither Swarthmore students nor most other people in the general population view art history, classics, or philosophy as being equally useful in the wider world as economics, mathematics, or computer science. From a financial standpoint, this is certainly true. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for computer and mathematical occupations in the US is $86,340, while the median annual wage for postsecondary philosophy professors is $71,890 — which does not seem like a terrible discrepancy, but it is when one considers the difficulty of securing a professorship (and the necessity of earning a PhD) with the expanding job market for computer scientists. (For some reason, demand for small chips of silicon is much higher than for dissertations on Socrates… I haven’t the slightest idea why.) Even so, I believe our definition of “practicality” is often far too narrow, and as a result, we underestimate the value of less “marketable” majors such as the humanities in our daily lives.

In my first-year seminar philosophy class, we were recently discussing the differences between the world of sense and the intelligible world. The former (if I understood correctly, which I cannot guarantee when it comes to philosophy) is the realm of physical reality in which everyone tries simply to gain material advantages and to “get along” as best they can. The latter comprises an ideal of meaningful life in which humans act because they believe in what they are doing. It occurred to me that these two realms represent the two opposing definitions of “practicality” with respect to college majors. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of “practical” as it applies to this context is “capable of being put to use or account.” For many students, the primary and most important “use” of college is to obtain an education so as to land a well-paying job and be financially secure. I fully understand that, as people come from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds, the only acceptable college majors for some are those that will almost guarantee a steady income. I am not trying to suggest that we should all become humanities majors (after all, I am considering being an astrophysics major, so I would be a terrible hypocrite). I would simply like to point out that “usefulness” is relative and different for each individual, and that different subjects can be “practical” in different aspects of our lives. For example, I am currently enrolled in Intensive First-Year Greek. Now, I am completely at a loss to demonstrate how Ancient Greek helps me survive from day to day. Yes, it is wonderful that I can now identify the names of all the fancy physics variables, and according to Professor Munson, Boris Johnson recites The Iliad when he does not know what else to say (there really is a video of him saying this), but I cannot honestly claim that knowing Greek helps me perform everyday tasks. On the other hand, it is useful on a fundamental level: it makes me happy, and I enjoy it. I know this sounds cheesy, but providing happiness is one of the most important functions in existence. 

Other classicists would perhaps give different answers for why they study Latin or Greek or ancient history: the ancient languages help us understand modern languages, Greek philosophers provide insight into humanity, history can educate us about present dilemmas, etc. Probably none of them would say they went into classics for the money, and yet, from their viewpoints, their field of study is practical because it can be “put to use” achieving the functions they find important. 

The same argument applies to every other field that we normally consider “impractical.” I have heard countless humanities majors bemoaning their moneyless fates, and, as I lack the expertise to counteract this view, I cannot tell them that everything will be okay. Also, I am only a first year, and doubtless there are countless upperclassmen who are rolling their eyes at my optimistically naïve view that “every major is practical.” I do, however, believe that the answer to the question, “What on earth am I going to do with a ____ major” is not “nothing” but rather, “You are already doing something with it.” Perhaps an art major creates masterpieces as a crucial expression of identity or finds art therapeutic, a way to release the tension of the day. Perhaps an English major crafts arguments and burrows into the layers of prose and poetry because literature is a means of relating both to other humans and to oneself. Perhaps a music major believes in the power of melodies and counterpoint to uplift souls and to create unity across cultural divides. I believe that, while one undoubtedly needs money to survive in today’s society, one also needs self-expression and human connection and spiritual fulfillment to truly live and enjoy life. Of course, this is not to say that no humanities major ever makes money, which is emphatically not the case, but rather, that our education can and should fulfill more functions than simply the ability to pay the bills. As a result, as long as one finds some use for a field of study, then it is practical. 

I recognize that some people, due to some lucky roll of the dice, have far more freedom to pursue their interests and to explore these other aspects of practicality than others. This is one of the primary injustices of our society, and perhaps some might argue that only the upper class has the luxury of finding the uses of art and comparative literature and obscure branches of philosophy. Yet, I still believe that everyone can derive enjoyment and enlightenment and a myriad of other individual benefits from the traditionally “impractical” subjects, no matter a person’s situation in life. For that matter, one can pursue both material and immaterial usefulness; I have noticed that many students here at Swarthmore double major or minor in a combination of S.T.E.M. and humanities. I do think, however, that people tend to perceive the former as the practical, profitable major and the latter as being simply “for fun” —  and indeed, I myself am guilty of this thought pattern. The dichotomy of “useful” and “not useful,” “profitable” and “penniless,” “practical” and “impractical” needs to disappear. We all go to college for a huge variety of reasons and dreams — to make friends, to make money, to learn about the world, to improve our writing, to improve our outlook on life, to train for a job, to learn about ourselves. We all need something different, whether that be supply and demand curves or music theory or essays about 17th-century Uzbekistan. If our studies satisfy that need, then I would say they are definitely “capable of being put to use or account.” 

Now, if you will excuse me, I must go and satisfy the requirements for my extremely practical sleeping major. 

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