If you are a senior, you have only days to switch to a major in the humanities. If you’re not a senior, you have more time, but you should do so immediately anyway.
There is much superficial factionalism between the humanities and sciences. The scientist ridicules the humanist, claiming that chemical synthesis is a phallogocentric social construct. And the humanist sees the scientist in running sneakers and loose-fitting jeans and wonders if he’s actually that clueless, or if he’s just on an even higher level of irony that we humanists cannot grasp. My point isn’t to increase the divide, or to denigrate the accomplishments of natural and social scientists. But everybody ought try a second major or significant coursework in the humanities.
“Art,” Oscar Wilde said, “is perfectly useless.” A true paradox which applies equally well to the humanities. Like art, the humanities are perfect and useless precisely because they are the highest ends of human life — so intrinsically satisfying and enriching that they need no external justification. They are the ends for which we live as opposed to the means by which we do.
And they’re so much fun. Scientists — natural and social — discuss data, facts, quantities, regressions, statistical significance. But we humanists talk about love, power, tragedy, violence, beauty and justice, God, guilt, sex, pathos, madness, inebriation and the power of religious guilt against inebriated sexual madness, and every other possible combination. The humanities are, in a word, sexy. They attempt to highlight the boldest, most interesting things claimed about human life in millenia of the smartest conversations and best art on record. The great humanist Aldous Huxley defined the intellectual as somebody who had discovered something better than sex. Data sets rarely are.
So study humanities. It’s not just for now, either. As unsatisfying as an education without liberal arts can be, what follows is even worse. I have a grim prophecy.
You can devote yourself to practical classes. You run all the data on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But someday these data will change, and you’ll have forgotten them. More, you’ll stop caring about the economic costs of the conflict, and you’ll want to know which side is right — what it means to be a part of a people, and what that has to do with land and religion and ancestry and political sovereignty. The unchanging values, not the shifting facts. You’ll forget all the regressions you ran on religious demographics in politics, and you’ll start wondering if He exists.
You might still maintain that some facts matter, and I’ll agree. But you’ll never get enough power to influence policy without selling out, and eventually you’ll realize that the only significant choices you really control are whom you’ll marry and how you’ll raise your kids, and that these are the most important decisions you’ll ever make. And you’ll feel like a dolt for taking classes on statistics when you could have been reading and discussing “Madame Bovary” and “Emile.” You’ll forget about sound policy and wish you knew about the good life.
As you wait for a phone call from a client with a fake tan and an MBA smile, you’ll thumb through The New Yorker, and you might find you have no appreciation for the poetry, you don’t know the meter, you don’t get the references, and that the joy others have found in the English language is lost on you and you are a hollow man. You’ll walk to the Met with the other fashionable young things and stare blankly at the Vlaminck, finding it even more boring than your options pricing. And this is the way your youth ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
You’ll find consolation for your Philistinism and aesthetic deprivation in “The Daily Show” and BusinessWeek, and conversations revolving around the invariably fascinating first-person singular. But then you’ll wake up, like in the beginning of a Woody Allen movie, and realize that you’re dying. And you’re not ready, because the best definition that has ever been given of philosophy was in Plato’s “Phaedo,” that it is preparation for death — and you majored in political science.
This is all a bit over the top, I confess, but my point is serious — a life without the liberal arts can be neither satisfying nor wholly human.
It is sometimes said that education should make us fit for the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Education should make us precisely unfit for the world. It should make us unemployable, disagreeable, politically eccentric, out of touch with our generation, absent-minded and unready for bourgeois respectability — maybe even a bit morbid, too. It should make us too concerned with truth to be influential, too concerned with goodness to be successful, too clever to laugh at the jokes we’re supposed to, too raised in consciousness to rehearse the roles corporate and political America have prepared for us, the ridiculous postures of “professionalism.” It should make us totally useless — but also, more human, more whole, more enriched.
And that’s precisely why you should major in the humanities.
Eventually we will probably need to reconcile with the world. But we deserve and need some time in the wilderness first.
Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.