The lifelong value of an education in the humanities

April 5, 2017
by Lisa Simeone

Every however-many years, we can count on attempts in Congress to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. The same old tales are trotted out – it’s a waste of taxpayer money; we’re going broke; if we cut this funding, the deficit will magically dwindle. Even though the amount of money going to these agencies is paltry in the grand scheme of things (86 cents per capita), this argument can be effective with people who like to get riled up about government “waste.” And now we have a president who not only wants to cut such funding, he wants to get rid of the NEA and NEH entirely. I doubt he’ll succeed, but I guess time will tell.

The whole kerfuffle has got me thinking, again, about what the humanities mean to me and to society in general. I’m clearly biased: I come from a liberal arts background. More than that, I chose a school that you might say is defiantly liberal arts – St. John’s College in Annapolis, the so-called “Great Books School.” The program consists of an all-required four-year curriculum with no majors and no electives. Everyone must take the same courses in all subjects – language (Ancient Greek and French), math, lab science, music, philosophy – every year. If you transfer to St. John’s from another school, you have to start as a freshman, and go through the curriculum from the beginning. At the core of the program are roughly 150 books from the Western canon, by authors as diverse as Homer, Plato, Dante, Milton, Kant, Nietzsche, Austen, Newton, Einstein. And all classes are discussion, not lecture. The idea is that students join in a conversation that has been going on for over 2,000 years, a conversation that is the basis of Western civilization. This education is, in a way, highly conservative. It posits that such a thing as the Western canon even exists – a contentious proposition these days – and that it’s worth preserving and taking seriously.

I found St. John’s by accident, in my senior year of high school, when I had already decided that I wasn’t going to college because everything looked like a continuation of high school. Then I saw the St. John’s Reading List. I visited the college and attended classes, including the evening seminar. In the course of two days, I was sold.

Here was a school where ideas mattered. Where people engaged in passionate discussions about virtue and wisdom and the nature of infinity. Where demonstrating a Euclidean theorem could be an exhilarating experience. Here was the girl who swore she’d never take another math or science course as long as she lived signing up to attend a school where those subjects were mandatory every year.

I like to say that St. John’s attracts misfits. Although we all had done well, in the conventional sense, in high school, we also felt that we had never quite fit in, that there was something missing. We found that something at St. John’s.

There is scarcely a day that goes by now that I don’t come across something that I realize I understand because of my education in the humanities. When I read a classical reference in an article, I recognize it as coming from one of the soul-stirring plays by Aeschylus, or Sophocles, or Euripides. When I walk into a museum and see a religious painting, I understand the story being told because of my reading of the Bible. I can assure you I never would have read the Bible otherwise – neither would I have read Kant or Hegel or Lavoisier or Faraday. St. John’s opened up the world to me and showed me that I needn’t be afraid of subjects in which I’m not expert, that I could learn about and understand even things that seemed impossibly abstruse. And this confidence led me to a career in journalism, where you have to talk to all kinds of people, where being a generalist is an asset.

I wish I could say that the liberal arts will save us. I used to believe that; but I’m not so naïve anymore. Some of my fellow students ended up at the NSA. Some hold views that are frighteningly hawkish to me. But the point is that we didn’t all come out the same. We read the same books, but we had different interpretations of them. And we believed in defending our interpretations with reason, with evidence. Though I don’t agree politically with all of my fellow St. Johnnies, I bet not a one of them is in favor of getting rid of humanities funding or humanities education.

About the Author

Lisa Simeone has been working in public radio for over 30 years. She has hosted NPR’s Weekend All Things ConsideredWeekend Edition Sunday, and Performance Today, as well as the independent documentary series Soundprint, the Metropolitan Opera, the Baltimore Symphony Casual Concerts, and countless live broadcasts. She currently hosts At the Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Broadcast Series, and the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series.

She has written for Style MagazineUrbanite, and City Paper and for several years wrote book reviews and op-eds for the Baltimore Sun. She also runs the civil liberties watchdog site TSA News. She’s a 1980 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis (the so-called “Great Books school”) and in 1997 received her M.A. in non-fiction from the The Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Baltimore.

The opinions expressed by guest contributors to the Maryland Humanities blog do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Maryland Humanities and/or any of its sponsors, partners, or funders. No official endorsement by any of these institutions should be inferred.

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