OF WHAT USE ARE THE HUMANITIES?
by Alan Nordstrom
“To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever.” —Stanley Fish
A higher liberal education, sometimes called a “humanistic education,” feeds the minds, hearts, and souls of students with the general intent of fully developing their humanity. Though a liberal education formally and intensively begins in college, the process properly continues throughout life autodidactically, to the extent that college graduates learn how to continue learning.
Mental intelligence, emotional intelligence, and spiritual intelligence—three interlinked spheres—should all be engaged and enhanced by the curriculum of the liberal arts and sciences, all of which may be broadly conceived as the “humanities” when they are pursued with the foremost aim of more fully humanizing students, rather than making specialists of them; specialization is the office of post-baccalaureate education.
One indicator of rich human development is Carl Jung’s four scales of operative intelligence:
Introversion <———> Extraversion
Intuiting <———> Sensing
Feeling <———> Thinking
Perceiving <———> Judging
Although each of us gravitates temperamentally to a specific position on each scale, we become more fully functioning as we learn to operate more gracefully across the span of each scale, thereby broadening our humanity.
The development of many virtues, or moral and ethical powers, should also result from a humanizing liberal education, and it would always be apt to ask of any curriculum what virtuous capacities were being enhanced by its disciplines, such as courage, temperance, fortitude, justice, even faith, hope, and love—to cite but one classic list. Many other lists enumerate further character qualities generally admired as valuable human traits worthy of acquiring, not the least being prudence and wisdom.
In our present era of educational accountability and measurable outcomes, the hope of proving the degree of humanity gained by a student during four years of college is slim. But an ideal is not a goal as much as it is an orientation and an aspiration; it is an intention that gives meaning and purpose to a lifetime pursuit. Why pursue a liberal education? To embody more of your potential humanity and to grow more humane. Now, is that useless?