Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Study the Humanities?

When a school board has to make budget cuts, where does it cut first and most deeply?
  • It isn't the athletics department. Men's football, basketball, and baseball bring in too much money, and the law requires them to fund women's athletics equally (though other sports may suffer as a consequence).
  • It isn't the maths and sciences, business-related courses, or industrial arts, which so immediately pertain to the future careers of their students.
  • It isn't health, P.E., or social studies, which bear so much of the ideological burden that educational leaders want to pass on to our kids.
No, the first and deepest cuts strike the humanities. After all, who needs art, music, language, literature? How will forensics (speech team), creative writing, and drama help your kids get ahead in the career world? How do these things apply to anything but themselves - disciplines in which very few people can make a decent living?

This reasoning has led many school boards to make very, very poor judgment calls. Without the skills, the knowledge, and the spirit imparted by a study of the humanities, they are preparing their students to be poorer human beings in so many ways. And, in my view, they are also hurting their future career prospects. Not only do the humanities impart potentially lucrative career skills, they also inoculate young people with an inner life that will enable them better to spend the leisure time their successful careers afford them.

In short, a study of the humanities prepares people to have a good life -- and to enjoy it once they've got it.

Let's start with language and literature. The more time young person spends studying modern languages, classical languages, and literature, the more he or she will become a citizen of the world. He will go forth into the world of adult scholarship, careers, and relationships with a broader perspective, a finer grasp of what makes people tick, and better communication skills. She will be able to draw on a larger repertoire of metaphors, examples, and snappy turns of phrase, which will make her writing and speaking more memorable and effective. These traits will grow still more if he or she becomes involved in drama, forensics, or writing programs at an early age.

How about art and music? Aren't choir and band merely forms of torture to which anyone who isn't completely tone-deaf must submit in order to meet graduation requirements? And isn't art simply the alternative for the tone-deaf kids? Only the "gay" kids really like this stuff, right?

Wrong. Being able to make music and/or visual art is one of the things that makes us human. The less we have these things in our lives, the less human we will be. And only a program that encourages children to strive for the highest standards in art and music will furnish our next generation with a world that has more variety in it, rather than less; more liberty, more meaning, more happiness, more intuition of the unseen and unspoken. If we take these things away or lower the standards, our world will tend to become grayer, dryer, more homogeneous, and more susceptible to a thought-destroying, misery-inflicting, cynically destructive regime.

Plus, there are vocational skills in music and art. Besides teaching, performing, and creating works of music or art professionally - which only a minority of people who study art and music can do - there are other careers that can benefit from a proficiency in the fine arts. Advertisers, builders, designers, filmmakers, landscapers, technical writers, policemen, and scientists can often achieve greater success through the ability to draw; many other careers can be advanced merely by having the observant eye, the patience, and the careful, precise hand movements that come from practicing visual arts. And when they make a ton of money and buy a big empty house, they'll know just what to hang on the walls.

Music also gives career advantages to those who study it. Good pianists and organists can often make a bit of extra money as accompanists for church services, choirs, theater groups, and public places where live music is offered. Other musicians and singers may also score some work in the fields of advertising, entertainment, church work, and increasingly also medicine! But apart from jobs that actually involve making music, practicing musicians will often be noticed for having stronger hands, greater lung capacity, and better eye-hand coordination than the average person. This can boost careers in sports, clerical work, mass transit, industrial labor, surgery, and the exploration of extreme environments, among other fields. Plus, they may be handy to have at parties, especially when the conversation starts to die.

People who write poetry, prose, or music, or who create works of visual art - even as a hobby - will tend to excel in problem-solving. For that is exactly what they are doing when they work out the shape and details of a creative work, in accord with the purpose and rules they have in mind. Style in art, music, or literature is merely the application of a set of raw materials to the parameters of an intellectual problem. If doing crossword puzzles helps keep the brain agile, consider what writing a daily fugue or sonnet can do!

And when it comes to choosing our leaders, we should hope to find people who have a spark of humanity in them, a love of the variety and diversity in culture and in life-experience. After all, we want them to protect our freedom to disagree with their beliefs and aims, to pursue our own goals, and to achieve whatever happiness we reasonably can. People who have read widely, who appreciate excellence and originality in the fine arts, and who can apply a disciplined mind to solving complex problems - people like musicians, artists, and authors - might make great leaders! And these are the first programs the budget committee cuts???

1 comment:

Imogen said...

God bless you for writing this article ~ in my not-so-smart third world country, it is in fact just as you say ~ when they have to make budget cuts for education, they do it in the humanities ~ they figure students won't need art, music or literature to get a job when they get out of school ~ the humanities aren't seen as *practical* I share the dismay of a friend of mine taking the teacher licensure exam who discovered that next to no art at all is covered by our government's education program ~ precisely because it isn't deemed *practical* ~ freakin' idiots 0_o