Humanities in the National News

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Students are on campus these days choosing their majors and registering for classes.  We had our biggest single day of early registration last month—about 110. Students are justifiably nervous about getting classes given the news from colleges all over the state.  Some schools are admitting fewer students (we are admitting more), and cutting class sections (we are adding as needed). For our students an early choice of classes means they will get more of their first choice classes. Later registration will mean they will have to accept what is still open, but they will get the courses they need—one of the benefits of independent higher education and why FPU undergrads graduate in four years.

But there is a more basic choice that students make, and occasionally it hits the national news. David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times wrote this week on why the study of history and the humanities teach us things that the sciences (social and natural) cannot, and may even be economically beneficial.  In the Times the title was “History for Dollars,” and in the Fresno Bee “Why study of history pays off” (see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/opinion/08brooks.html?ref=davidbrooks).

His point is that life is not systematic, and that the theories and systems that attempt to explain how and why people and institutions act and work cannot grasp the complexity and, more importantly, the passions that drive us, all of which he calls “The Big Shaggy.” If we want to succeed, he argues, we need more than accounting, economics, biology, or psychology. We also need a look at the inexplicable events, persons and imaginations that have shaped our past and so our present through great works of art, literature and history. He points to the difference between being trained in a particular subject matter and its methodology, and being educated in a broader or deeper sense. He points to having the ability to make useful comparisons and see analogies, an imaginative grasp of possibilities, and learning when passions take over and science ends. (Some might argue that science is fueled by passions. Ask a scientist.)

What is my point? Well, first, Brooks’ article is worth reading, and it is noteworthy when an argument like this makes the national news. But more importantly, it might help us to think about what we are doing when we choose our fields of study (or as parents and professors help students think through what they might want to study).

When I speak to parents and new students on the days they arrive at FPU to register I explain that the major will get them their first job, and their general education (humanities and sciences pursued for knowledge of how science is done) gets them their second, third and fourth. I go further and say take a major that will get you a job or a profession; become a manager or accountant, a doctor or lawyer, or a researcher, or social worker. But take another major or a minor that will deepen your mind; study history, literature or philosophy, or art. It can be done both ways. Major in chemistry, and minor in history.  Or major in English, and minor in business. This is the kind of education that will help us grasp Brooks’ “Big Shaggy,” the unsystematic, passionate, unaccountable factors in life that we will encounter in whatever profession we enter.

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