When one of Trump’s minor education flunkies came to Madison last month to praise shop class, when Mike Rowe tours our tech schools to promote enrollment in welding and building, and when the most Governor Dennis Daugaard can say to deflect concerns that his vo-tech rhetoric devalues education in the humanities is that “We need four-year degree engineers, we need four year degree IT professionals, but we also need two-year degree folks,” I feel the need to fill the gap and remind our young writers, artists, and philosophers that they are awesome, too, that working in the intricacies of words, images, and ideas is as rewarding and vital to the human enterprise as the practical, money-making matters consuming our leaders’ attention.
The president of Ronald J. Dennis, president of Johns Hopkins University, agrees:
…for much of America’s history, college graduates were not deemed truly educated unless they had mastered philosophy, literature, political theory and history. The core role of higher education was to invite students into the millennia-spanning conversations about matters including what it means to be alive, the definition of justice and the tension between tyranny and democracy. Fostering engagement with these issues is still an essential part of the university’s function in society.
…the case for the humanities can also be understood in less transactional terms and more as a foundational preparation for a life well lived. Since Socrates, thinkers have extolled the vital role a humanities education plays in encouraging citizens to lead an examined life. It cultivates critical thinking, self-reflection, empathy and tolerance, the usefulness of which only becomes more apparent as one navigates life’s challenges.
When students, and graduates, inevitably face moments of ethical decision-making, of sorting fact from fiction on social media, and of reconciling individual aspirations with obligations to their communities, they would be aided by the habits of discernment and deliberation that have distinguished the humanistic tradition for centuries. Perhaps best of all for the country is the vital role played by humanistic inquiry in the development of better, more informed, more capable citizens. That is an especially resonant value in the United States’ present moment of uncertainty and division [Ronald J. Daniels, “Please, Students, Take that ‘Impractical’ Humanities Course. We Will All Benefit,” Washington Post, 2018.09.14].
Mike Rowe said on his vo-tech promotion tour last month that “either-or” thinking has caused our workforce shortage. I agree: either-or thinking with respect to education is bad. But when our leaders focus their attention entirely on the noble arts of shop class, someone needs to sing the equally due praises of English class, history class, and art class.