Let me recommend that you PrattleNoggers out there (yeah you — you know who you are) take the time to read this open letter to George Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, written by Gregory Petsko from Brandeis University, on the importance of the Liberal Arts and humanities (different entities, BTW) in a college education. Petsko argues for more than a well-rounded education, however; he argues for carefully attending to the social and cultural responsibilities of universities in general. This one paragraph from his letter perhaps best exemplifies this very responsibility:
Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. [italics added]
Wow – what it means to be human?!? Yeah, that’s a biggie!
Here’s another excerpt from Petsko’s letter that reminds me why such depth and breadth of learning is so very important:
I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. [italics added] And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained.
We need students to be prepared for change, not just for jobs. As David Brooks has written, studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:
The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.
Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.
But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.
As is most often the case, none of these excerpts alone makes the case as well as the whole. Read the wholes — the original texts — and get into the depth and breadth of Petsko’s and Brooks’ arguments. And then when you’re ready, relish your own education for all that it’s worth, just as I have.