In Defense of the Humanities

Recent proposals to privilege those college students who major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), by charging them lower tuition than their peers who major in the humanities have me feeling more than a little cantankerous. I remember a piece by John Ciardi that I first encountered when I was a new teaching assistant at the University of Arkansas. I want to share a lengthy excerpt from that piece, “Another School Year: Why?” I know that blog posts shouldn’t be this long, but this is an important issue, and I can’t think of a smarter and more eloquent response to STEM than these words from Ciardi:

 Another School Year: Why?

Let me tell you one of the earliest disasters in my career as a teacher. It was January of 1940 and I was fresh out of graduate school starting my first semester at the University of Kansas City. Part of the reading for the freshman English course was Hamlet. Part of the student body was a beanpole with hair on top who came into my class, sat down, folded his arms, and looked at me as if to say: “All right, damn you, teach me something.” Two weeks later we started Hamlet. Three weeks later he came into my office with his hands on his hips. It is easy to put your hands on your hips if you are not carrying books, and this one was an unburdened soul. “Look,” he said, “I came here to be a pharmacist. Why do I have to read this stuff?” And not having a book of his own to point to, he pointed at mine which was lying on the desk.

New as I was to the faculty, I could have told this specimen a number of things. I could have pointed out that he had enrolled, not in a drugstore-mechanics school, but in a college, and that at the end of this course, he meant to reach for a scroll that read Bachelor of Science. It would not read: Qualified Pill-Grinding Technician. It would certify that he had specialized in pharmacy and had attained a certain minimum qualification, but it would further certify that he had been exposed to some of the ideas mankind has generated within its history. That is to say, he had not entered a technical training school, but a university, and that in universities students enroll for both training and education.

I could have told him all this, but it was fairly obvious he wasn’t going to be around long enough for it to matter: at the rate he was going, the first marking period might reasonably be expected to blow him toward the employment agency.

Nevertheless, I was young and I had a high sense of duty and I tried to put it this way: “For the rest of your life,” I said, “your days are going to average out to about twenty-four hours. They will be a little shorter when you are in love, and a little longer when you are out of love, but the average will tend to hold. For eight of those hours, more or less, you will be asleep, and I assume you need neither education nor training to manage to get through that third of your life.

“Then for about eight hours of each working day, you will, I hope, be usefully employed. Assume you have gone through pharmacy school—or engineering, or aggie, or law school, or whatever—during those eight hours you will be using your professional skills. You will see to it during this third of your life that the cyanide stays out of the aspirin, that the bull doesn’t jump the fence, or that your client doesn’t go to the electric chair as a result of your incompetence. These are all useful pursuits, they involve skills every man must respect, and they can all bring you good basic satisfactions. Along with everything else, they will probably be what sets your table, supports your wife, and rears your children. They will be your income, and may it always suffice.

“But having finished the day’s work what do you do with those other eight hours—the other third of your life? Let’s say you go home to your family. What sort of family are you raising? Will the children ever be exposed to a reasonably penetrating idea at home? We all think of ourselves as citizens of a great democracy. Democracies can exist, however, only as long as they remain intellectually alive. Will you be presiding over a family that maintains some basic contact with the great continuity of democratic intellect? Or is your family going to be strictly penny-ante and beer on ice? Will there be a book in the house? Will there be a painting a reasonably sensitive man can look at without shuddering? Will your family be able to speak English and to talk about an idea? Will the kids ever get to hear Bach?”

That is about what I said, but this particular pest was not interested. “Look,” he said, “you professors raise your kids your way; I’ll take care of my own. Me, I’m out to make money.”

“I hope you make a lot of it,” I told him, “because you’re going to be badly stuck for something to do when you’re not signing checks.”

Fourteen years later, I am still teaching, and I am here to tell you that the business of the college is not only to train you, but to put you in touch with what the best ideas human minds have thought. If you have no time for Shakespeare, for a basic look at philosophy, for the community of the fine arts, for that lesson of man’s development we call history—then you have no business being in college. You are on your way to being that new species of mechanized savage, the Push-button Neanderthal. Our colleges inevitably graduate a number of such life forms, but it cannot be said that they went to college; rather, the college went through them—without making contact.

No one gets to be a human being unaided. There is not enough time in a single lifetime to invent for oneself everything one needs to know in order to be a civilized human.

Assume, for example, that you want to be a physicist. You pass the great stone halls, of say, MIT, and there cut into stone are the names of the master scientists. The chances are that few of you will leave your names to be cut into those stones. Yet any one of you who managed to stay awake through part of a high school course in physics, knows more about physics than did many of those great makers of the past. You know more because they left you what they knew. The first course in any science is essentially a history course. You have to begin by learning what the past learned for you. Except as a man has entered the past of the race he has no function in civilization.

And as this is true of the techniques of mankind, so is it true of mankind’s spiritual resources. Most of these resources, both technical and spiritual, are stored in books. Books, the arts, and the techniques of science, are man’s peculiar accomplishment.

When you have read a book, you have added to your human experience. Read Homer and your mind includes a piece of Homer’s mind. Through books you can acquire at least fragments of the mind and experience of Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare—the list is endless. For a great book is necessarily a gift: it offers you a life you have not time to live yourself, and it takes you into a world you have not time to travel in literal time. A civilized human mind is, in essence, one that contains many such lives and many such worlds. If you are too much in a hurry, or too arrogantly proud of your own limitations, to accept as a gift to your humanity some pieces of the minds of Sophocles, of Aristotle, of Chaucer—and right down the scale and down the ages to Yeats, Einstein, E.B. White, and Ogden Nash—then you may be protected by the laws governing manslaughter, and you may be a voting entity, but you are neither a developed human being nor a useful citizen of a democracy.

I think it was La Rochefoucauld who said that most people would never fall in love if they hadn’t read about it. He might have said that no one would ever manage to become a human if he hadn’t read about it.

I speak, I am sure, for the faculty of the liberal arts colleges and for the faculties of the specialized schools as well, when I say that a university has no real existence and no real purpose except as it succeeds in putting you in touch, both as specialists and as humans, with those human minds your human mind needs to include. The faculty, by its very existence, says implicitly: “We have been aided by many people, and by many books, and by the arts, in our attempt to make ourselves some sort of storehouse of human experience. We are here to make available to you, as best we can, that experience.”




  1. Jon Boeckenstedt on October 19, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Hi. Did you transcribe this yourself from an old pamphlet, or did you take it from my blog? If the latter, I’d appreciate an acknowledgement.

    • Lee Martin on October 19, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Hi Jon,

      I took it from my own printed source, an anthology of essays, but I’m happy to share a link to your blog. Many thanks for pointing it out to me. All good wishes–Lee

  2. Jon Boeckenstedt on October 19, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Where were you when I was trying to track this down!?!

    Thanks much.

Leave a Comment