The first time that someone asked me if I wanted to go to college, I was in middle school. That someone was a teacher. I thought for a moment and answered “yes,” then went home that afternoon and told my parents. I remember them taking a bit of a deep breath, and then encouraging me. No one that I knew in my family at the time had graduated from college.
I went to bed that night and thought nothing else of it until somewhere around my sophomore year in high school, when things like advanced placement and honors classes began. Then the adventure was underway.
As I said in a recent podcast episode, I’m a case study in not knowing what you want to be when you grow up. My freshman year in college I was a music major. Then I dropped out altogether for a semester and went back to a different school as a communications major, eventually declaring theatre as a second major, and graduating with a psychology minor. Then I went to grad school for religious studies, and ended up working as a programmer, and eventually a manager of programmers. So, my higher education was a circuitous route through the humanities that eventually ended up with the acquisition of some hard technical skills much later (and which, incidentally, I acquired at an arts school). The thing is, though, that I could never have gotten where I’ve been professionally without that humanities education. The things that I learned in communication studies (being required, for example, to take two courses in listening), the things that I learned in theatre as a director, the leadership theory that I learned in grad school….have all served as a foundation beneath the technical skills that I’ve acquired later. Without them, I couldn’t have made sense of where in the world those technical skills fit in, to say nothing of being able to relate and communicate with the people (much smarter than I) that I lead every day.
Which sort of brings me to my point.
I read this column a few days ago about the most regretted and lowest paying degrees. As you might guess, the data that this report cites indicates that most people surveyed regret degrees in the humanities, because, as a rule, they pay less. I think the data is likely skewed, as the purpose of the column is clearly to focus on “return on investment,” approaching higher education as a business proposition. I’m not without sympathy to that, given the cost of a university degree. I believe, though, that we’re doing ourselves a dis-service to let the conversation end there.
If you read to the end of the column, you’ll see two words that really summarize the issue for me: “critical thinking.” The author reports, to his credit, opinions from “humanities specialists” that degrees in the humanities foster the critical thinking skills necessary to adapt to a wide variety of vocations, instead of being narrowly focused on a single field.
I can say without hesitation that the critical thinking skills that I learned in my humanities education, both undergrad and graduate, have been more important in my life than the technical skills that comprised a small sliver of my education. I can also say without hesitation that I would not grasp the technical skills at as meaningful a level without those critical thinking skills.
I also think that it only takes a casual look around our everyday lives, even a cursory glance at the headlines or a social media feed, to see a void of critical thinking skills. I would argue that the rampant conspiracy theories and hatred we feel toward each other as our nation collapses in on itself is the direct result of a lack of critical thinking skills. This deficiency, in turn, is the result of education being treated as a business model, in which the prioritized outcome of a degree is the income that it will allow you to earn. Higher education, however, is so much more than that. The academy is where people learn who they are, what their views on art, on religion, on politics, on relationships, on…everything…are. Without those fundamental belief structures in place, we’re just doing things. Rushing but getting nowhere. We’re just busy. We’re just making stuff up as we go.
Make stuff, earn money, repeat.
The end result is using those technical skills to make things without stopping to consider whether or not we should. Not all progress is progress. If we use income as our only barometer for success, and if that continues to lead to a decline in studying the humanities, our collective humanity may well be a casualty.