These days, having a job that pays the bills and puts food on the table is the first concern of many Americans. The recession has made it extremely difficult for families to continue coping with high costs of living. With these conditions, it is fairly easy to understand why parents are urging their children to go to schools and acquire intensive and extensive training in science, business, mathematics, engineering, as well as in any other field where success is certain to bring in money to the table, sooner or later.
This accounts for the great number of the student populace flocking to the halls of educational institutions to make their dreams come true of becoming high paying doctors, nurses, engineers, physicists, lawyers and businessmen.
However, while most go to where the money is, there are still a few students who find themselves determined enough to enroll in courses in the liberal arts, despite the current state of the economy. However, undergraduates set on getting that degree in philosophy or cultural studies may face more than the usual opposition. While most people still associate a career in the arts with next to little financial rewards, present conditions are forcing more and more parents, students and educational institutions to redefine what a Humanities education is all about and why it should even continue to be provided.
Unlike courses in medicine or law, liberal arts majors do not leave their classrooms knowing how to wield a scalpel to save another human being’s life or how to argue a case in order to fight for a client’s rights. A literature major, for instance, will not spend hours tinkering with the motherboard of an obsolete computer unit to find out how to invent a computer that is even better than Apple’s Mac. A liberal arts major will not do any of these things. The training that a humanities schooling gives is not going to help students save lives or build computers that would improve the country’s communications systems.
And while humanities departments do train its students on analysis, articulation, ethical reasoning, critical thinking and the many disciplines of art, a humanities education is designed to teach one thing and one thing only: to instruct students on the meaning of life. What is it? How do you look for it?
It is not really a surprise why, in a time when dour economic conditions is compelling everyone to do everything they can to land a job and keep it, the essence of a humanities education is often lost, if not completely forgotten. How do we explore what it is to be human when we earn barely enough to keep a chicken alive? How do we discuss and marvel over Plato’s theories, the poems of Neruda, great paintings, history records and cultural differences when we do not have a roof over our heads or we have just lost our jobs? How do we admire past discoveries when our stomachs grumble because they are empty?
The advocates of liberal art schools are right. Looking for the meaning of life is worthwhile. But before we do, it’s always a given that our basic needs be taken care of first. Without that, one cannot expect people to go off and pick a slim volume of poetry over a book discussing useful business strategies, or the fifty best moneymaking schemes.