The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

In losing the humanities, we’re losing humanity

There is a certain odd, obsessive romanticism the internet takes to with the idea of the ‘tortured academic.’ 

It is as if, somehow, we have cast out the idea of the self-exiled scholar from our world of the mundane and ordinary to the realm of the endearingly quaint. We imagine them as figures from a bygone era, whose endless toiling over ideas and concepts is somehow more noble, more poetic, than our own. For whatever reason, we love this idea so much to have given it a name – ‘dark academia.’

The ‘tortured academic’ archetype itself is thought to have roots in the dialogues of Plato, but social media has given it an entirely-modern sheen. Of course, we recognize, on some deeper level, that those in academia are just like us – trying to make a living to survive in an environment that is, at best, uncaring, and, at worst, actively hostile. These are not wonderfully-tormented souls, but rather individuals who happened to choose a path that leads them into a world where the rewards are, more often than not, intangible and distant. Yet, we insist on continuing the idyllic myth. We know that the grass on the other side isn’t actually greener, but we will always want it to be. We are trying to recapture a sense of purpose, of meaning, in a world that often seems to lack both.

Perhaps it is because the pace of modern life has become so breakneck.

The pursuit of knowledge is often solely equated with the acquisition of skills that will lead to better job opportunities, higher salaries, and, ultimately, a more comfortable existence. This means-to-an-end approach in education seems to be an increasing trend as the popularity of jobs in STEM fields continues to rise, often to the point of being depicted as the only sect of ‘actual’ viable careers. 

In this environment, it’s no surprise our focus has narrowed – that we have come to value only those things that seem immediately useful. The humanities have begun to feel like an extra indulgence. It is seen as a luxury to explore ideas that have nothing to do with our financial stability; to read for pleasure, to engage in intellectual discussions, to question and wonder. This is a grave error.

Let us be clear that this is not intended as a simplistic, all-encompassing expression of distaste for ‘modern society’. Numerous inventions throughout history before the internet have made the garnering of information more accessible and efficient. The easiest historical examples are the printing press, telegraph, and radio, all well-hailed as inventions that changed us and the world for the better. And they have. Communication is our greatest power, we have realized, and so we must continue to revolutionize and refine. But what if learning isn’t just about getting somewhere else? 

Such is the modern dilemma – the prevalent aversion to the more laborious parts of acquiring knowledge. We are eager to claim knowledge with a swift hand, to feel that we are worldly, to accrue great amounts of information in our lifetime. In fact, we are often rewarded for it. When we are able to speak intelligently about myriad topics, we are seen, by others and ourselves, as interesting, well-rounded, and even desirable.

There are a great number of things that can be learned in any humanities discipline. In linguistics, we can unravel the intricacies of human communication, analyze the way words converge to convey meaning. Philosophy equips us to understand the underlying principles of our beliefs and critically examine those put forth by others. Art is a reflective mirror, capturing and projecting the social, political, and cultural context of its time. These disciplines all impart significant and practical skills – critical thinking, communication, empathy. But above all, the single greatest gift from a humanities education is the feeling-out of the process – the art of slow, deliberate learning.

With this comes the importance of dismantling the idea that STEM fields are inherently more valuable than those of humanities. There is an increasingly wide-held attitude that a humanities or liberal arts degree is nearly the same as no degree at all. As this belief gains backing, fewer students planning on receiving higher education decide to pursue the humanities. Research from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences shows a disturbing trend – enrollment in collegiate humanities programs has notably declined, and the respective humanities departments are seeing a decrease in funding. When these funding cuts happen, it reinforces the same belief – the time of the humanities is over. 

As unfortunate as this is, it’s no surprise. In our hyper-capitalistic society, money is often the primary motivator in choosing a career, and it’s not a secret that those who work in the liberal arts earn less than their STEM counterparts. This comes at no surprise as well – STEM is the moneymaker; it propels our country forward in this competitive, technological world. The pressure to major in something that will lead directly to a lucrative career, as opposed to one that may seem more esoteric or abstract, is immense. 

But we cannot be reduced to arguing for the economic utility of studying English or philosophy. There is a more fundamental issue at stake here: the role of the humanities in the making of a well-rounded, thoughtful individual and society. A strong humanities education for everyone, regardless of their career focus, is critical in preventing this loss of humanness. For this reason, we believe that emphasizing humanities topics at an early age should be part of educational standards. 

It is often said that our world has lost art in the pursuit of hyper-practicality. Take a look around and you’ll agree – contemporary buildings lack architectural beauty, the tub no longer has claw feet, city streets have spikes in lieu of statues to prevent the homeless from resting. This loss of ours is profound. Practicality is important, yes, but aesthetic appeal creates joy and supports our human pursuit of self-expression. The arts give us identity, something that cannot be replaced by the likes of artificial intelligence, no matter how hard we try. 

If STEM is a propeller into the times of the future, the humanities keep us tethered enough that we do not lose ourselves. If we disregard the human reasons for technological innovation, where will it stop? Who will evaluate ethics if no one has developed the critical thinking skills to examine the complex, the subjective? What will it all be for? Take the internet, for example – created by engineers and computer scientists, but ultimately evaluated by scholars in the humanities; how it will change society, the ethical implications of its creation, and the responsibilities that come with it. When a building is planned, artistic design must be taken into consideration or the outcome will lack beauty. When a doctor treats their patient, they apply not only their knowledge of science, but their understanding of intricate social and ethical principles.

Right now, it’s clear that there is a constant tug of war between STEM and the humanities in the educational and professional world, but in order to foster a well-rounded society, we must learn to let them coexist. The truth is that they already overlap far more than many would like to let on. There is often room for subjectivity when ideas are applied in a real life setting, and without the critical thinking skills and social considerations that come from a strong humanities education, the engineers and doctors of the future will not be able to solve problems with the care that is required of them. After all, even the Hippocratic Oath says, “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.”