A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristol wrote an essay in praise of the humanities, entitled "Starving for Wisdom." In it, he argued vigorously in favor of college students taking serious courses in philosophy, literature, history, and the other humanities and arts. In prose reminiscent of C. P. Snow's famous book, The Two Cultures, he showed ways in which we need both the sciences and humanities in our educations.
The comments the piece generated were telling. Angry fathers wrote that a humanities degree wouldn't get their kids a good job. Barely literate rejoinders suggested that such frivolity is a luxury for the elite who come from vast wealth, and can't be indulged in by students who have had to borrow the money for an education.
I found myself worried about both the negative comments and many of the positive ones, endorsing a study of the humanities. Whether college coursework in the humanities is worthwhile or not ultimately turns on a principle you learn while studying the humanities - a view from ancient Greece and Rome that the value of most things in this world depends on how they function in our lives. Will a college course in philosophy elevate a student and bring practical wisdom, or will it deprive him of a vocational boost that he could have gotten from one more course in business, or engineering? It all depends on the way in which the course was taught and the way in which the subject was studied. Both the professor and the student have the chance to ruin their time together by their choices along the way. But if each is performing masterfully well in his or her own respective capacities, magic can happen.
It may surprise you to learn that, as a philosopher, I don't go around recommending that people take philosophy courses or read philosophy books - except for mine, I should quickly add. The wrong courses and books can be an absurdly monumental waste of time. But the right courses and books can be life changing. It took me years to learn how to tell the difference.
There is a game that academics learn to play, and play well. Professors in the humanities are typically smart enough to discern what will get them promoted and tenured, and even intellectually esteemed by those who work in their field. That doesn't necessarily translate into writing or teaching on issues of general life significance and value. But those who focus on the right issues and take penetratingly wise approaches to those issues can confer on their students advantages in work and life that are impossible to replicate in any other way.
Great philosophy confers great advantages. And the same is true of work in any of the humanities, which is not just an area of study for college, but for life.
That's why I often recommend to people what great books they may want to read. Books can be great for different reasons, and not all of those reasons relate directly to a life well lived or work extraordinarily done. The right books, though, can make all the difference for cultivating personal wisdom and guiding professional success. When you do it right, there is no study worth more than work in the humanities.