My uncle is a math professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Recently, he sent me an email with a story that caught me off guard.
Many years ago, my uncle had a student who was a former Navy SEAL. My uncle described him as “tough as tough can be and smart too,” yet, he didn’t do well on his exams. This seemed strange to my uncle because he always asked great questions in class and was always up to date on homework assignments. When my uncle asked him about his lackluster exam performance, the student replied with a fascinating claim, “Professor, you are asking me to think. I have been trained to react, to react to any and all possibilities. When bullets come flying at you, there is no time to think.”
My uncle sent me this email on the same day that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point grabbed headlines by announcing a plan to potentially cut 13 majors from its program. Among those majors are English, Philosophy, History, and Spanish. Instead, it wants to introduce programs that have “clear career pathways.”
This move by the University of Wisconsin, as well as the general trend of people dropping out of the humanities, should frighten us all. If we truly drift away from the humanities, if we learn to react and not think, if we abandon the liberal-arts education, we will abandon the disciplines and traditions that made our country, and frankly our world, so great.
Whenever I make such a powerful statement, I’m often met with eyes of bewilderment. Students cannot see the benefit, let alone the good already bequeathed, in studying the humanities. In his book Conscience and its Enemies, Professor Robert George articulates a powerful reason to study the humanities. George writes that “our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths—truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base.” In other words, the humanities “can teach us to desire what is good because it is good, thus making us truly masters of ourselves.”
The humanities have proven vital in the advancement of mankind. It was John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government that launched liberalism and fought against monarchy. Without Locke and his ideological counterpart Robert Filmer, we would not have American Democracy as we know it today. It was the timeless writings of F.A. Hayek that helped reveal the horrors of socialism and defend property rights. Fighting to protect religious liberty currently at the Supreme Court are professors of jurisprudence, philosophy, and history. The humanities have been essential to human progress.
Conservatives, myself included, often bemoan that campuses across the country are hotbeds of liberalism (not Lockean liberalism, to be sure) spreading neo-Marxist postmodernist theories. Instead, university faculty should teach their students to think, to read and to be articulate. When learning about economic theory, required reading should be The Communist Manifesto alongside The Road to Serfdom. Students should study the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Students should be exposed to the great writers of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Dickens and Fitzgerald, authors who were able to brilliantly articulate truths about the world. We need these authors and thinkers and we need this type of education. My beloved English teacher from high school said it best: the humanities make us human.
It is my sincere hope that the University of Wisconsin doesn’t go through with their plan to cut many humanities majors. I also hope that my words inspire you.
Whether or not you will major and minor in the humanities like I am, I hope that you nonetheless invest worthwhile time in the humanities, not only to elevate yourself but to help elevate the world.