Last fall, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, where I serve as president, I happened to overhear a conversation among a group of students. One student was telling the others that he had decided not to enroll in an introductory philosophy course that he had sampled during the “add/drop” period at the start of the semester. The demands of his major, he said, meant that he needed to take “practical” courses. With an exaggerated sigh, he mused that “enlightenment” would simply have to wait. For now, employability was paramount. What can you do? His friends shrugged. You gotta get a job.
The students’ conversation has stayed with me, in part because it fits into a larger, disconcerting narrative about the role of the humanities in higher education. In a time of dizzying technological achievement and of rapid scientific innovation, skeptics of the humanities may question the usefulness of studying Aristotle, the history of the Italian Renaissance or modern Chinese fiction. At many universities across the country, beset by low enrollments and a lack of university support, the number of humanities course offerings and faculty members are dwindling. At meetings of university presidents, the humanities are frequently referred to as the “fragile disciplines.”
In hindsight, I regret not barging into the conversation of that student I overheard to argue for taking that introductory philosophy course. I would have started by reminding him that, 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.
I would have also mentioned to the student who shunned the philosophy course that he was misinformed about the job market. It is true that many employers are looking for graduates with specialized technical skills, but they also look for other capabilities. As the world is transformed by artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation, the uniquely human qualities of creativity, imagination, discernment and moral reasoning will be the ultimate coin of the realm. All these skills, as well as the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively, are honed in humanities courses.
Further, I would have argued that while a degree anchored in the sciences is an important prerequisite for many jobs, it is not the only route. Look no further than the founders of companies such as LinkedIn, Slack and Flickr, who are among the many tech entrepreneurs with degrees in the humanities, and who credit that training for their success. At Hopkins, graduates include Susan Daimler, an English major turned serial entrepreneur who co-founded Buyfolio and SeatGuru before joining the leadership ranks at Zillow. Renowned Wall Street investor Bill Miller, a former Hopkins philosophy graduate student, recently gave $75 million to the university’s philosophy department. Heck, even Michael Bloomberg, a 1964 electrical-engineering graduate, took humanities courses. (“Occidental Civilization from the 18th Century to Present” and “Philosophic Problems,” if you’re wondering.)
And contrary to the widely held belief that humanities majors have a hard time getting jobs, recent studies show that those with humanities degrees are thriving in the workplace, experiencing low rates of unemployment and reporting high levels of job satisfaction. The ratio between average median incomes for humanities degree holders and those with business, engineering, and health and medical sciences degrees has been shown to narrow over the course of a career.
But 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.
By all means, students should take courses they deem practical and follow their interests, but if they also make a point of studying the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, or delving into modern poetry, or even taking introductory philosophy, we will all benefit.
• Ronald J. Daniels is the president of Johns Hopkins University. This op-ed is adapted from a letter to Hopkins students