you want fries with that?

Backstory: About 15 years ago, I toyed with the idea of getting my Masters in Fine Arts. Embedded in an otherwise unmemorable application packet was a journal paper whose subject would be even less memorable had it not the dual distinction of being off-putting and incomprehensible. Worse—I had to write an essay about it.

Its thesis, as best I could tell, was that the liberal arts are threatened by the rise of professional studies, but to be TRULY SUCCESSFUL PROFESSIONALS (all caps, underscore), students need a thorough grounding in the humanities. That essay stands as the only rant I’ve ever written. Here’s the gist of it. ________________

The rapid rise of professional schools has knocked the bejesus out of the classical mainstay of higher education: the liberal arts. Engineering, industrial relations, neurobiology—these are complex, demanding studies; the kids have already learned to read and write (sort of); for them and their teachers the divagations of Dante and John Donne mean next to nothing.

Only the fierce belief that you can’t lay claim to a real education without some acquaintance with liberal studies keeps many of these schools and programs this side of the sod.

Yet even back in the day when the first universities were coming online, the humanities were a sideline of sorts. Most university students came from to a small but powerful elite—from a social class that wasn’t allowed to work, but only to rule: a prerogative that needed no dispensation or degree.

And if you dropped out? Big whoop. Defending land and castle, God and honor—these young aristocrats knew where their priorities lay. Still, times change, and slowly they were surrounded, then swamped in a sea of merchants and artisans.

Those folks didn’t need a diploma to enter a profession. Even into the early 20th century lawyers and doctors—of the common, country sort, anyway—often apprenticed. But if your parents were pretentious and well heeled (or frugal) enough, sure, the study of Greek and Latin could be an edifying thing. Could lead to professional contacts, too.

For many young fellows, the university was functionally analogous to the finishing school for ladies. It provided the ostentation, the intellectual spit ’n’ polish, which made a man a truly successful professional. By the standards of the times this was the value, and worth it.

Yet through the history of higher education runs the thread, the concept, of the humanities as a moral improving force, a baptism in the fount of reason: as enlightenment. And so to the old liberal studies has been added a new liberal ideal: that everyone, however educable, benefit from a liberal education.

For sure, during the past century millions of people—children of immigrants, laborers, slaves, hicks—owe a debt of gratitude to the liberal arts for sweeping changes in their prospects for a decent life. A better life.

Thus has risen a new set of axioms about the value of the humanities—that they provide a core of cultural inclusiveness and critical acuity essential to democratic humanism. At times—sure. Yet not reliably enough for this trite and tired twaddle about truly successful professionals who might be successful—truly successful—for a host of reasons having little to do with the education they endured.

In our “you want fries with that?” world, I say successful people are those who find fulfillment in whatever fascinates them, who duck or deny the pressure to conform to someone else’s enthusiasms and not their own. And with luck, they don’t get married to a label that gives only the crudest indication of who they really are.

Our careers shape and define us whether we accomplish what we value or not—far more poignantly if we do not. To really think, to be moved by ideas, by the vast sweep of human creativity and sorrow over tens of thousands of years, let alone the stunning richness of the natural worlds within and without us—to have it reduced to this, that we need a liberal arts background to be truly successful professionals, losing ourselves in some quasi-identity, thinking the label is us—I will defend the humanities for a host of reasons, but never this.


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