Jeff Osborne, an Assistant Professor in the English and Philosophy Department, recently wrote an editorial on the value of the humanities for The Paducah Sun. The article is below.
Growing up in a coal-mining family in the mountains of Virginia, only the second in my family to go to college, I never forgot my grandfather’s hope for me: “Boy, I’m proud to see you reading. I hope you go to college so you can learn about places, people, and ideas that I never got a chance to learn about.” He wouldn’t have known it, but he was echoing what John Adams had written 200 years earlier: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy … to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” The value of humanistic study, which he expresses as a right, has since been lost to many Americans. While he understood the practical value of education to benefit the country politically, civically, and economically, he also understood that education should produce citizens who had studied art, literature, philosophy, and languages. Why?
First, a nation that sees education only through the lens of practical concerns will blindly eliminate skills essential to a healthy republic. Defining the purpose of education to produce technical abilities to benefit the economy sacrifices the critical, creative, and imaginative abilities that citizens need to strengthen our democracy. When Governor Bevin says tax payers shouldn’t fund students to study French Literature, he seeks to deny working class students the very liberal arts education he received, the kind that sharpens the faculties of thought and imagination necessary for civic-minded individuals who care about the world around them, who will become engaged thoughtful leaders in their communities, who will seek out social justice, who will flourish as individuals, and will strive to ensure a flourishing world. Without citizens who encounter one another with empathy, respect, and concern, democracy cannot survive.
This is not a liberal or conservative issue. William Bennett, staunch conservative, appalled that we live in a time when the value of the humanities is being debated, argues that “they give us the proper perspective for developing standards of critical judgment and the perspective on ourselves which allows us to approach the basic questions, the questions that Kant asks: What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope?” And Winston Churchill insisted that “The first duty of the university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities. We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers.” Humanities majors will understand the context of Churchill’s fears about the reduction of education to technical knowledge, even if our Governor does not.
Second, the link between humanities education and economic prosperity is well established. Arts and humanities majors do better on the GMAT than their Business major counterparts; majors in Classics and Philosophy recently ranked highest on the LSAT, with Art History, Philosophy, Music, History, Foreign Languages, and Literature not far behind. They are sought out by employers to become Sales Account Managers, Web Developers, Marketing Directors, and Financial Services specialists. In this new economy where graduates will have not one but several careers, my wife’s BA in English has translated into PR jobs in health and public radio, and she is now in HR and Recruiting at a local hospital. A friend who received a BFA in poetry is a director at a major advertising firm making well over $200,000. Many CEOs have degrees in arts and humanities. And, of course, a former East Asian Studies major is now the governor of the state of Kentucky. Only someone who completely misunderstands the value of such study would ask what majoring in East Asian studies has to do with being a state governor.
Multiple studies reveal that humanities students are better at multitasking; they are better able to tolerate differences and find solutions to conflict; they are innovative critical thinkers; they possess refined communication skills, ethical judgment, intercultural skills, and the capacity for new learning. The CEO of TIAA-CREF makes the case clear: “Business leaders today are looking for a diversity of skills, and not just technical knowledge…. The skills that come out of the humanities, the softer relationship skills–listening, empathy, an appreciation for context–are incredibly important. Only a sliver of [the most valuable individuals in my organization] ever went to business school.” Humanities students are, moreover, happier with their lives post graduation, more engaged with their jobs and, thus, more productive contributors to the economic health of their communities.
I want for my students at Murray State what I and their Governor received in the study of arts and humanities: a chance to flourish as individuals, to become life-long learners, to contribute to the economic well being of their communities, and to become engaged citizens working to preserve our democracy without which any economic prosperity is meaningless.
Dr. Jeff Osborne
Associate Professor of American Literature
Murray State University