Today’s New York Times ran this article: “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” (If you’re a Times reader, or are willing to register, you can click on the link and read the the whole thing.)

Here’s how the piece begins:

…[T]he critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop…. are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice. But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency….

Nothing new and startling there; arguments over whether education ought to prepare students for specific jobs or nourish their spirits have been going on since ancient times, and the article goes on to interview college professors on both sides of the debate.

No, what bothers me is where the article ends up.

The reporter concludes that belt-tightening at universities will be hardest on the humanities departments: fewer humanities professors are hired, fewer classes offered, fewer degrees granted. And here are the final paragraphs:

The humanities continue to thrive in elite liberal arts schools. But the divide between these private schools and others is widening. Some large state universities routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities, Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus and a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College, reported. At the University of Washington, for example, in recent years, as many as one-quarter of the students found they were unable to get into a humanities course.

As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the province of the wealthy.

That may be unfortunate but inevitable, Mr. Kronman [professor of law at Yale] said. The essence of a humanities education — reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming “to grips with the question of what living is for” — may become “a great luxury that many cannot afford.”


Did you catch the equation of “reading the great literary and philosophical works” with “a humanities education at an elite liberal arts school”?

This is the sort of thinking that always infuriates me: the unthinking assumption that education = degree at Ivy League school. The thread that connects all my work is this: I’m thoroughly convinced that real learning happens when a mature thinker sets out to educate herself.

Or himself.

You can read the Great Books on your own; as I point out in The Well-Educated Mind, self-education in the classical tradition was the norm, not the exception, until the last century. You can explore history without enrolling in an elite liberal arts school: that’s why I write all these books.

If you follow my work at all, you already know this. But it’s incredibly disheartening to see this point of view so casually dismissed, to see education and the ability to pay high tuition so easily identified with each other.

Classical education is not, has never been, will not be merely the pursuit of the wealthy. There are still a few of us who think this way, even within the university; check out the Clemente Course in the Humanities at Bard College, and be sure to read “For the Homeless, Rebirth Through Socrates.” (Note, by the way, the involvement of my Norton editor in the project.)

On the other hand, I suppose the New York Times has a mission to make every informational piece sound as dramatic and cliff-hanging as possible. An interesting report on different ways in which people educate themselves during tough times doesn’t lend itself to the apocalyptic we’re-all-doomed format that the paper seems to prefer.

Showing 12 comments
  • Jonathan

    I read the same article – with the same reaction!

    Thanks for all that you do. I’m reading Volume 1 right now, – and writing all over the pages (as you instructed in the Well-Educated Mind)!

    Thanks for everything!

  • Becky

    Unbelievable…coming “to grips with the question of what living is for” — becoming “a great luxury that many cannot afford.” On the contrary – it is a necessity we cannot afford to be without! What a wasted life – to not even attempt to answer the question of what living is for, to even suggest that it can only be found with an expensive, ivy-league education, is such a falsehood. God help us all…

    Thanks Susan, for all you do! I attended public school all my life, and did ‘okay’. Sad to say, I allowed peer pressure and ‘being cool’ take precedence over academics. But college came calling (by way of my parents saying I had to go!), and I learned the benefits of independent study the hard way! I didn’t attend an ivy-league school, not even close. But graduated my local state university with honors – praise God! Fast forward years later – married, three kids, and considering homeschooling. The Well Trained Mind is shared with me by a friend, saw you speak at a homeschooling convention (studying history chronologically – say it ain’t so!!!!) and here we are, almost 4 years into it with The Well Trained Mind as our base text. I have learned SO much from teaching the children classically with your book and the resources it recommends. My husband CAN’T WAIT until he can read Book 2 that you’re working on currently…and he was even less into academics than I was. Not a reader by any stretch of the imagination…he read book 1 almost in one sitting! We are so thankful for what you have done, and continue to do…sorry for the long and babbly post…be encouraged!!!

    : ) Becky

  • Karen

    So the only way to “come to grips with what living is for” is through
    a humanities education? I would bet that any number of scientists,
    farmers, mathematicians, doctors, athletes, etc. have their own
    ideas about “what living is for.” Any parent of a special needs or
    medically fragile child will equally have done a whole lot of thinking
    about what living is for, with or without the help of history or

    I would bet that many of such people
    lead lives that are filled with meaning and purpose and service,
    even if they never took a Great Books course or even flipped through
    the pages of Plato or Aristotle on their own. Their definition may —
    or may not — differ from everyone else’s. It may lack historical
    perspective or a sense of connection with others who have
    painfully worked their way through to meaning; but this does not
    lessen its depth or its worth.

    I may be a passionate believer in self-education and in the value
    of the humanities, but I do not believe that whatever conclusions
    I arrive at as a result are the only path to enlightenment, or that
    there is one end to the path… or even that despite all my efforts
    I have managed to get even halfway through the journey.

    It always fascinates me that the Times, which in general I respect,
    can come up with such either-or, black-white thinking nearly
    every time that education comes up as a topic.

  • Angie (WI)

    Very timely as I am applying to college to finish my bachelor’s this fall. I am so used to educating myself that I am having trouble grasping why I need this piece of paper in order to be hired to do some future job. Advisors ask, “What interests you?” Whatever I am interested in, I am already reading about. But, I don’t have a degree…

  • Trish Lawrence

    Oh brother, NYT.

    I’m getting ready to finish my BA this year. I don’t care much about it as it’s just what I need to get to the MFA, but one thing that I love about your TWEM book is the fact that you don’t have to rush right in to enroll in school to learn and to enjoy and study great literature.

    Sure, your book is a quick stepping stone to that (for me, at least) as I found I loved the reading, studying approach. So much so that I would hate to die without actually having earned that piece of paper for the amount of reading and studying I do on a regular basis. 🙂

    Thank you for encouraging us to self-educate (adults and kids)! I appreciate it very much.

    Trish L.

  • Tsessebe

    I was about agree with Karen and say “well yes of course you can find fulfillment in life as a scientist, farmer etc” but many of the scientists who inspired me, or who seem satisfied and fulfilled to me, the most are also avid readers and greatly appreciate and partake in the humanities. I don’t know; I just think the humanities are indeed necessary.

    To some, yes, it might be cultural participation, storytelling, etc, not necessarily the western canon… I mean, I visited a rural village in Zimbabwe and the most respected and serene adults, barely literate, were still renown for their command of the language, how richly they spoke, how well they could tell stories, and how many stories they knew. It was their own version of humanities, in a way, and they had never set foot in a university before.

  • Janice in NJ

    Would you believe that I canceled the Times just this week? I was tired of reading about the world’s doom. I’ve decided to live my chin-up, things-can’t-be-as-bad-as-all-that-now-can-they! life without being told about how hopeless everything is. It’s less paralyzing this way. I’m off to read a book that I’m not supposed to be able to understand. Shhhh…

  • CKaye

    I can’t thank you enough for all you do! Thanks for sharing the inspiring article “For the Homeless, Rebirth Through Socrates.”

    I bought “The Harvard Classic” about a two years ago wanting to educate myself at home. I felt pretty overwhemled, wondering how I was going to read all of the books and understand them. When I started reading Benjamin Franklin’s Biography I felt so inspired with his words, but then a couple days would go by and I wouldn’t remember what I read or what I felt. I read the WEM a couple of months ago and now feel I have a guide to read the “Great books”. When I have read a study guide and learned what I was supposed to get from a book and didn’t I would think that I’m not smart enough to understand the books true meaning. You are not telling people what to think or feel, but giving us the tools to discover these “Great Books” on our own.
    Thank you again!

  • Anwen


  • Colleen in NS

    Thank you for continuing to speak up about things like this!!

    And I LOVED reading about the Clemente course and rebirth for homeless through Socrates…..My Dad lived a rough life for a chunk of his adulthood, and I found recently that he’s one of the most brilliant people I know. After I started my “new” homeschooling journey (switching from the unschooling mindset) by implementing ideas from WTM, I remembered he had gone to Catholic high school and college. I called him one night and said, “Dad, have you ever heard of a course called Logic?” (most ideas in WTM were new to me 5 years ago) “Yes, Colleen, I studied it in school.” “How about Rhetoric, Dad?” Same answer. “Did you study Latin, Dad?” “Yes.” I had not come across ANYONE up until that conversation, who had even heard of studying these subjects, and I was getting funny looks if I mentioned them. So we got into a 3 hour conversation in which I got to know him a whole lot better by pumping him with questions about classical education, reading classics, the importance of it all, and what he thinks about a myriad of issues…..He is my biggest encourager besides my husband in giving my kids this type of education. And I had no idea, because so many years were cloaked in just seeing the rough part of his life.

    Anyway, all that to say that those college programs are doing a wonderful thing. Thanks for sharing about them.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    What about the fallacy of assuming that one routinely receives a grounding in humanities by attending an elite college. I might suggest that they have been in the vanguard of challenging the value of the classics in the first place. Perhaps they haven’t been replacing them with “vocational” courses, but they have attempted to denigrate them as the products of biased dead white men and elevate other works on a quota system that often bears little relationship to the actual literary value of the work.
    I wonder if NYTimes has been as critical of the various “studies” degrees?

  • Leah

    I largely agree with Sebastian’s comment. I attended an “elite liberal arts” school and classes on the classics were absolutely available to us. They are not as “hot,” however. What’s in vogue is what I think of as the “agenda writing,” feminism, post-modernism, etc.

    I disagree with the assertion that elite liberal arts schools are the only place where one can learn about literature and philosophy. However, I do think there is a lot of real and valuable learning going on in elite liberal arts college communities and I do think it’s a shame that with the ever-increasing price tag that opportunity is consequently available to fewer and fewer people. (I received a scholarship that made it possible for me to attend, however I also received help from my parents, worked part-time all through high school and college, and took out a small loan.) I see that question though as separate from the question of whether or not a grounding in the Western Canon is endanger of becoming the province of the rich.

    I’d also argue that elite liberal arts schools and ivy league schools are two very different kinds of learning environments that attract different types of students, although for the purpose of discussing this article that doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.

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