Louis Markos argues for the virtue of the humanities in an ever-increasing technologically and business-driven society

In the past few years I have noticed three troubling trends with regard to the humanities. I have been an English professor at Houston Baptist University for nearly three decades. During that time, I have seen the number of humanities majors – literature, history, philosophy, Spanish, Latin, classics, etc. – rise and fall, but never in all those years have I witnessed the kind of precipitous decline I have seen recently.

Secondly, in addition to teaching literature I have devoted the last nine years to lecturing for our Honors College, a program that allows students to obtain a full classical Christian Great Books education while also majoring in a field of their choice. In the beginning, a significant number of Honors College students chose a major in the humanities; today, more and more are majoring in the sciences, in business or in the social sciences.

Finally, I have spent the last 12 years speaking for classical Christian schools and conferences across the country. Though the movement as a whole is healthy and growing, I have noticed as of late a slow, but increasing danger. Parents who have been supportive of classical education and pleased by the intellectual and moral progress of their children are feeling the temptation to jump ship mid-stream and move their classically-trained middle school students to a non-classical high school.

What do these three troubling trends have in common? A growing perception on the part of students and their parents that an education grounded in the humanities/liberal arts is somehow impractical and will leave graduates without the resources to find a good college or a good job. “A passion for literature, Latin, history or philosophy is all well and good,” so the current wisdom goes, “but those pursuits will not provide the kind of training that students need to survive and thrive in the modern age.”

I’ve always known in my gut that this knee-jerk, utilitarian response to the humanities is false, but I never dreamed that its falsehood would be exposed by the very business world that the utilitarians invariably point to as their greatest ally and their key source of proof.

Now, before I proceed, I must confess that as a lifelong humanities person I feel an aversion to quoting statistics and current events. I have always preferred, and continue to prefer, time-tested wisdom to the latest trends, the testimonies and experiences of individual human beings to reductive and often anti-humanistic statistics. Still, I will here break my rule (temporarily) since the news and the numbers are punching holes in the current wisdom and letting the true light shine through.

Try typing this phrase into your favorite search engine: “Employers want liberal arts majors.” You will be greeted,  if not deluged, with articles, reports, book reviews and studies asserting that the naysayers are wrong and that companies do very much want employees who have cut their teeth in a good humanities program. You might be skeptical at first, figuring these articles must have been posted by humanities departments or classical schools. If so, you quickly will realize that you are wrong. Here is a brief sampling of what you will find:

  1. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “According to studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers often rank skills such as critical thinking and communication – hallmarks of liberal arts training – above technical aptitude as essential for career readiness.”
  2. From the New York Times’ review of George Anders’s You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education and Randall Stross’ A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees: “According to both Anders and Stross, the ever-expanding tech sector is now producing career opportunities in fields – project management, recruitment, human relations, branding, data analysis, market research, design, fundraising, and sourcing, to name some – that specifically require the skills taught in the humanities. To thrive in these areas, one must be able to communicate effectively, read subtle social and emotional cues, make persuasive arguments, adapt quickly to fluid environments, interpret new forms of information while translating them into a compelling narrative and anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arise. Programs like English or history represent better preparation, the two authors argue, for the demands of the newly emerging ‘rapport sector’ than vocationally oriented disciplines like engineering or finance.”
  3. From the Harvard Business Review: “From Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context – something humanities graduates happen to be well trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history and philosophy nerds.”
  4. And, an Investopedia survey of executives – including CEOs, presidents, vice presidents and C-level executives – by the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed:
  • 93% of executives say “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than a particular degree.”
  • 80% of executives say that regardless of a student’s major, they should have “a broad knowledge” of the liberal arts and sciences.
  • 80% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on oral and written communication skills.
  • 71% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on the ability to innovate and be creative.
  • 74% of executives would “recommend a liberal education to their own child or a young child they know.”

I easily could quote another dozen passages, but I hope these will suffice to show that the humanities/liberal arts are not as divorced from the needs of real-life employers as has been supposed. In taking a non-utilitarian approach, one in which the discipline is studied as an end-in-itself, the humanities end up producing graduates who excel in just the skills that modern companies are demanding from their employees. Furthermore, because the graduates acquired those skills not through direct vocational training, but as a natural consequence of dialoging with the great works of literature, history and philosophy, they internalize them in a way that better enables growth, flexibility and innovation over time.

Quote two above does a fine job listing some of the skills that develop organically from the humanistic disciplines, but I, as a humanities professor, prefer to flesh out the exact nature of those critical thinking skills by looking to the past for guidance, clarity and illumination. When I do so, I discover, to my delight, that all that needs to be said on the subject was said a century-and-a-half ago by a British Victorian sage who lived and wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution: Cardinal Newman.

In 1852, Newman delivered a series of nine discourses – later published as The Idea of a University – in which he laid down foundational principles for a proposed classical Christian liberal arts Catholic university in Dublin, Ireland. In discourse VII, chapter X, Newman describes, in terms prophetic of the passages I quoted above, the fruits of a liberal arts education grounded in the humanities:

A University training is the great ordinary means to a great, but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself.

Were my concern here the ability of the humanities to shape virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens who can redeem public discourse and uphold and preserve a deliberative representational democracy, I would zero in on the first sentence. Heaven knows, our modern, fractured society is in desperate need of such college graduates! Since, however, my focus is the link between the liberal arts and the workplace, I will turn instead to the remainder of the paragraph – not to enshrine it, but to explicate, parse and interpret it as though it were a poem or a historical event or a Latin verb. For that is the way humanities majors interact with the world around them; it is as familiar to them as breathing or walking or falling in love.

It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.

In the language of classical Christian education, such a student has successfully worked his way through the trivium (“three ways”) of grammar, logic and rhetoric. He, like the college humanities major, has learned to “think for himself,” not by parroting the words of others or rejecting all that came before him, but by measuring his ideas against standards of goodness, truth and beauty, synthesizing them into a coherent thesis or worldview, and then sharing that schema with his peers in a persuasive, but irenic manner. A humanities student learns to do this without knowing he is doing it – by wrestling with the timeless issues raised by Sophocles or Plutarch or Aquinas – and he will carry it with him into committee board rooms where such integrative, high-level thinking is required and valued.

It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.

The humanities excel at training students to read a text –any kind of text – and go for the jugular. That is to say, students who spend their college years intensively studying literature or history or philosophy become adept at cutting through what is peripheral to get to the core, to what is most essential, most lasting and most human. The business world very much needs employees who can analyze a situation and identify, quickly and with precision, the root causes of that situation and the consequences it is likely to produce. True, some of that can be gained by studying business case studies, but what those studies lack are the simultaneously particular and universal issues that confront humanities majors in every class.

It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.

It may sound like a cliché to refer to the humanities major as a Renaissance man, but it should not. The liberal arts strive to produce graduates who can speak intelligently and with passion on a wide range of topics, not because they have memorized a packet of trivial pursuit cards, but because they have spent four years actively participating in the Great Conversation that has been going on since Homer and the books of Moses. Though they are sometimes ridiculed for being jacks of all trades, but masters of none, they are in truth generalists who see and appreciate the connections between all areas of thought. Such employees will be able to connect with clients in a way that goes beyond small talk at the bar or restaurant. Their training will allow them to see the client, not to mention their officemates, as fellow travelers on a  journey of self-discovery.

It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.

One thing that the humanities are particularly good at fostering and strengthening in their students is a sense of what I like to call, after Percy Shelley, the sympathetic imagination. To open oneself to the joys and sorrows, passions and fears, convictions and foibles of people from various ages and cultures – as humanities majors do every week in their classes – is to gain, by slow osmosis, the ability to see the world through different eyes. Although the characters that humanities majors meet in their studies share with them a common humanity, they all have unique struggles that draw students out of their comfort zones and cultural bubbles. Whether they be fictional (Achilles, Antigone, Aeneas, Elizabeth Bennet) or non-fictional (Alexander, Caesar Augustus, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I), poets (Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) or philosophers (Plato, Augustine, Kierkegaard), their intense reality forces those who encounter them to get inside their heads, to understand their actions and motivations, to sympathize with rather than stand in judgment over them. Needless to say, a company that employs workers who possess these skills will attract clients and customers who feel that their needs, desires and apprehensions have been understood and respected.

He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself.

To immerse oneself in the literary, historical and philosophical records that have been passed down to us over the last three millennia is to be confronted at once with our great potential and our profound limits. The humanities present man at his best and his worst, as a noble and glorious creature created in the image of God who is yet broken, fallen and depraved. Not until a student comes to grips with the good he is capable of – and the bad he is equally capable of – will he gain both the confidence and the humility to serve his fellow man. Only then will he know when to speak and when to remain silent, when to voice his own opinion and when to listen to the opinions of others. Employees who are firm in what they believe, yet open to correction and new ideas, are a rare and precious commodity in the business world. Employers are eager to hire such people!

It thrills my heart that the business world has finally caught up with what Newman wrote 150 years ago. Now, if only students (and their parents) could read and interpret the signs of the times. There are now, and always will be, students who do not feel drawn to classical schools or humanities majors. That is fine and as it should be. But for those students who are passionate about an education that immerses them in the liberal arts, please rest assured that the skills such an education fosters in them will serve those students well in whatever career they choose to pursue.

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