Degrees offered in the field of Humanities, or the Liberal Arts (here used interchangeably), are often today trumpeted as indicating a “creative and adaptable workforce.” This, most modern proponents (formerly including one Jeremy A. Kee) consider(ed) to be the reason why the humanities are undeserving of their decreasingly meritorious reputation in higher education. After all, in the modern world, what is more important than adaptability and creativity?
I argue that more important to the modern world than these shifting sand buzzwords (think “innovative” and “revolutionary” in the tech world) are the three things that have been the cornerstone of philosophic focus, and which therefore gave rise to the Humanities as a field of study – what is true (metaphysics), what is good (ethics), and what is beautiful (aesthetics). Keats is famed for having written many wonderful lines of prose, and among his most well-known are, “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all/ Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” What is beautiful is that which is true, and the truth is beautiful. This, then, is the value of degree holders in the Humanities – that they may be equipped not only with the skills to discern the truth, but also with the knowledge of what has been offered and many times disproven to be the truth over the millennia.
In discussions on the wayward state of higher education, one is likely to hear time and again about the rising cost of tuition (true), decreased graduation rates (misleading, but true), and a litany of other topics de jour, yet in all these well-meaning and important discussions one issue that rarely if ever comes up is what is being taught. That higher education has lost its way is painfully obvious, but even if we find a way to make the curriculum more strenuous or the cost more affordable, no meaningful change will be made until we settle first what the purpose and intent of higher education is, and second, what our students are truly learning.
There was a time when the Humanities taught students what has been held by preceding generations of intellectuals, philosophers, and bodies religious to be true, and equipped the students to discern for themselves what they [the students] held to be true. Students were not only given a box of tools with which to build their houses, but also a foundation upon which to build. Today (bona fides: I am to the surprise of no one a student of the liberal arts), students are given one or the other, either the knowledge of past thought, or the skills with which to discern truth from farce, and most often they are given only the latter, as this is what is seen to be “profitable.”
To this line of thought, I would point out that an infinitely wiser man than I once and forever said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to forfeit his soul?”
This is the direction of the world – profit and progress, both ends in themselves rather than means – over beauty and truth. A prophet of profit’s message dies with him, but a prophet of the true, the good, and the beautiful… his message lives beyond him. Truth does not die; it lives on in spite of its detractors. Truth is often chided as it holds the mirror to the man and forces him to look at who he really is.
The truth is that the Liberal Arts, if unleashed in their full and true forms, could change the world. Instead, because truth is uncomfortable to (as it is meant to be), and therefore so offensive, it has been run out of our universities. Instead of being taught to pursue the truth, we are taught to doubt it. Instead of being taught the value of our long-held traditions, we are taught that they and they alone are responsible for the horrors of history, and should be not only forgotten but destroyed entirely. Relativism infiltrated our universitites, and when that happened it was only a matter of time before it slithered its way into popular culture. The Liberal Arts have had a cold blanket thrown on them, rendering them inert. They are in their present state boring, and therefore irrelevant, yet they are not dead. They are only dormant.