How to read Whitman and understand life

Students of the humanities are quick to defend their fields of study. We have to qualify the value of our disciplines to more practical ears that are deaf to the more romantic humanities sales pitch. We tout the reading and writing skills that are timeless in their marketability when we really want to talk about Walt Whitman.

Instead of musing on semiotics, some of us drop the three-word catch phrase “critical thinking skills” — something academic departments say employers want.

It’s just like the recruitment video from ASU’s department of English says: “An English degree sets you up to be able to think critically, to read analytically and to express yourself persuasively and effectively in writing and in speech. You can use that for anything.”

Spokespersons for the humanities — like me and the makers of the recruitment video — assert their worth by unfairly pitting them against the demands of the job market, implying that the study of art, philosophy and literature are useful because they help yield more competent workers. Our current worry about finding jobs has turned the intrinsic goodness of the humanities — a discipline valuable on its own terms — into a matter of dollars and cents.

The saying “critical thinking skills” has been turned into a dirty phrase. A penchant for 19th century literature seems economically secure again, as does a minor in religious studies. However, a look at the starting salaries of humanities and social sciences majors in January 2012 — $37,400, according to NACE’s salary survey — would say that critical thinking skills aren’t enough if we are looking at them to make money. The term has been brought out of its humanist context and swallowed by the economic fold of job security.

Critical thinking skills only have intrinsic value if the humanities have intrinsic value. The humanities are the perfect antidote for the generation living in a perpetual state of disenchantment. For the young adult who feels anxious about the future, the answer is more art — not less.

When it comes to the humanities, "critical thinking skills" is a really a shorthand expression of the training our minds need to extract meaning from our lives. Our experiences become a three-dimensional mosaic piece, fashioned by the world’s entire history of ideas. When one analyzes fiction or studies Immanuel Kant’s imperatives, one is performing the same mental exercise one needs to turn something seemingly ordinary into something meaningful.

The arts offer competing answers to the never-ending question, “Why does life matter?” These answers are crucial to a generation of young adults who find themselves stuck in a rut of apathy. The critical thinking skills we acquire can show us how to endure troubling times by encouraging us to repurpose our skepticism and create a new vocabulary we use to cope on our own terms.

I agree with Stanley Fish in believing that studying the humanities aren’t meant to save us or ennoble us, even if that’s what they incidentally do.

The humanities were never meant to be the be-all, end-all solution to the world's problems, but they can still enrich our lives. Even when the future looks bleak, the humanities can teach us how to color our experiences with hues of insight, restoring wonder and hope.

Who’s to say that isn’t enough?


Reach the columnist at or follow her @CE_truong


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