Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities

A father recently visited campus. He wondered if Gutenberg was right for his daughter.

The man was a bright, no-nonsense sort of guy. He owned a furniture store that he hoped his daughter would someday inherit. He enjoyed meeting the faculty, sitting in on discussion, and Gutenberg’s price. But he couldn’t leap one hurdle. “It just seems so impractical,” he said. His daughter did not attend Gutenberg.

Are degrees like Gutenberg’s impractical? As Gutenberg’s admissions officer, I hear this complaint too often. It is a strong deterrent for some students. But is it deserved?

I must admit, studying the humanities has rarely been done for practical benefits. The Odyssey never taught anyone to bake bread; Jane Austen never taught anyone how to build a suspension bridge. For this reason, I advise prospective students to go into engineering if that is what they want.

But many students enter college not knowing what they want. Yet even these students view the humanities with skepticism. The humanities, according to some of these students, suffer from a “rare air” stigma. These students imagine that humanities classes are populated by slightly batty Homer students who sip chamomile tea and pontificate on wildly abstract subjects.

Guess who caused this rare-air stigma? Those in the humanities did.

Yes, many tweedy humanities professors have taken unwarranted pride in discussions of ancients like Homer and Virgil. “We are above it,” they seem to say. “Let others toil in the impurities of the marketplace; we prefer the rare air of the Acropolis.”

I wish these professors would drop this pretension. These professors (secure in their own job and income) help create an anti-market idealism in their students. Refusing to work for “the man” became (especially in the 1960s) a badge of honor. But this misguided idealism did little to slow “the man”; he is alive and well in the marketplace. The only thing this idealism accomplished was keeping many idealistic students unemployed. Instead of merely warning students against selling out, humanities profs should encourage their students toward industry and fruitfulness.

There’s another reason I wish professors would drop this “rare air” stigma: The professors don’t exist above the marketplace. Their students and their jobs are prone to the same economic peaks and valleys as shoe manufacturers. Study of the humanities spikes during bull markets and sinks during bear markets. During the Roaring Twenties, the humanities thrived; during the shoestring thirties, the humanities faltered. (It got so bad in 1935 that The Princeton Tiger cartooned liberal arts grads receiving loaves of bread with their diplomas.) The humanities popped again during the booming sixties and stagnated again during the seventies.

Again, the humanities do not exist for the purpose of becoming wealthy. Studying great books like The Odyssey and Pride and Prejudice is for maturing our innermost being. We read these books to cultivate, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest” inside us. This is our primary mission.

But our primary mission ought not blind us from the fact that we, too, are part of the marketplace.

Today, we are in the middle of the market against the humanities. A recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences shows that recent undergrads have fled the humanities for “practical” majors. Furthermore, at Yale and Harvard, humanities-majors have dwindled, while “practical” majors have increased.

Hopefully the relatively good news coming from economic sectors will encourage students to reenlist in the humanities. But, even if we begin booming again, we might suffer from students believing our degree is impractical.

But are the humanities impractical? Not at all. In fact, I am convinced that humanities students are better prepared for the contemporary marketplace than many “practical” degrees. But you’ll have to wait for my next blog post to hear why.


Believers Must Get in the Education Business

In my recent paper, “How to Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast,” the topic of Gutenberg’s 2013 Summer Institute, I highlighted the need for believers to begin to develop an alternative educational infrastructure. A friend recently sent me an interesting article from an Australian newspaper. It is about some predictions being made by a Christian philosopher there. Of interest to me, in the fourth paragraph of the article he makes a similar suggestion to that in my paper. If there is to be any antidote to the collapse of Western culture, believers must get in the education business and provide some truly biblical alternatives to educating the next generation.

Here’s a link to the article:


Good to Hear

Classical Conversations is a home-centered education movement that emphasizes classical tools of learning. Looks like Gutenberg has some supporters there. (See this post: We’re glad about that.

Speaking of classical education: Gutenberg is planning a winter conference (February-ish) on a classical approach to education. We’ve got a couple of big guests (who we’ll announce later) who will be part of the conference. Details soon.


Essential Education

It has always been clear to me that Gutenberg strives to impart a moral education that is sorely lacking in today’s colleges and universities. In wrestling with the “big questions”—those that humans have always struggled to answer—a Gutenberg student is challenged to come to grips with questions of truth, morality, and the most fundamental of all: Does God exist, and what claims, if any, might He have on my life?

Increasingly, however, it is not simply the content of a Gutenberg education but the very nature of a Gutenberg education that is shown to be critically important in this fast paced and changing 21st century. Gutenberg’s “great books” education focuses on learning to read difficult literature with understanding, to discuss that material respectfully with other divergent personalities, and then to communicate briefly and clearly the interplay of different ideas. Those are the very skills that today’s marketplace increasingly demands.

Justin Pope and Didi Tang of the Associated Press expressed these thoughts recently in an article titled “Post-Recession, Higher Ed Paths Diverge,” which has appeared in a number of different formats and publications. Slightly different versions of the article (from which I will quote) appear at and

In their articles, the authors contrast two colleges in China, where education has traditionally been very narrowly geared toward specific job training characterized by “rote learning, hyper-specialization, and a lock-step course of study for all.” They note that this type of higher education—essentially vocational training—has been the norm in the entire world outside of the United States.

But the economic meltdown of the last decade, the pace at which technology (and thus job skill sets) has changed, and the huge amount of unemployment have forced people outside of old career fields. In light of those changes, the authors have found that advocates of broader learning around the world “hear employers demanding the ‘soft skills’—communication, critical thinking and working with diverse groups—that broad-based learning more effectively instills. These advocates argue their countries need job-creators, not just job-fillers. They think the biggest innovations come from well-rounded graduates.” What these employers are demanding is what I see modeled five days a week, nine months a year in Gutenberg’s classrooms.

Interestingly, the article notes that at the very time that the rest of the world is seeing the limitations of college as vocational training, America’s education power structure is turning away from the liberal arts and toward that which elsewhere is being rejected: “In the United States…higher education’s focus is shifting to getting students that first job in a still-shaky economy.” Note that the authors say “first job.” But how many of us are still in the same field as our first job or perhaps anything close to it? And how many of us are working in the same area in which we studied?

In America, broad-based learning and the liberal arts and sciences are losing favor with students and politicians because, say the authors, “Tuition is so high and the lingering economic distress so great that an education not directly tied to an occupation is increasingly seen as a luxury.” The article notes that fully 25 percent of today’s college students are studying business in one form or another. Yet, in their next paragraph, the authors note, “Elsewhere in the world there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity.” Yes, “an economic necessity.”

Oddly enough, while American politicians (who really like to be able to measure and quantify things—something very difficult to do when it comes to learning to think and communicate well) and schools are moving away from the liberal arts without quite recognizing what they are seeking, employers are asking for those very skills that Gutenberg graduates have in abundance: “A recent employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities [AAC&U] found 93 percent [of employers] reported that the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems were more important than undergraduate majors.” AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider says,“Employers are saying to us ‘we don’t want to hire people who have been locked into mental cubicles.’ The best way to be locked into a mental cubicle is to study only one subject and look at it only from a particular point of view.”

I wish that our prospective students and their parents could hear what American employers are saying and also what the Chinese have learned the hard way. “China does not teach you how to communicate,” says Peng Hongbin, founder in 2007 of Yuanjing Academy, a new experiment in China that offers students a broad array of subjects. “For a country to innovate, to be creative, it needs imagination, not a knowledge and know-how from a specific field of study.”

Enter Gutenberg College…


A Dialog on Education or A Socratic Approach to Choosing the Right College

Solomon Salvatore is attending his 25th high school reunion. The high school, called The Academy, is a respected New England private preparatory school. The Academy is also celebrating its 100-year anniversary, which has prompted school officials to hold the reunion at the luxurious new All Seasons Health/Beauty Resort and Spa. This upscale resort caters to individuals who wish to achieve the pinnacle of health. Solomon has found a couple of old classmates and has organized lunch with them at the resort’s restaurant. The first is Roger Simpson, a newly appointed president of Haverford, a large public university. The other, Bud Sager, is the academic dean of the smaller elite private college, Brownstone College. They are seated at a small table.


Bud Sager: So how have you two been getting along?

Roger Simpson: Superbly, though I am frightfully overextended.

Sag: It is that time of life.

Simp: My new position as university president is exciting but challenging. Personally, I think my secretary accomplished a herculean task to find time in my schedule to allow me to come.

Sag: I am with you 100%. One’s duties as dean never seem to stop. But I wouldn’t miss this trip down memory lane for anything.

Simp: Solomon, my crazy friend, I haven’t seen or heard from you since graduation. It’s been too long.

Sag: It has. I miss all of those adventures you led us on. To this day, I’m guaranteed to get a room full of laughs when I tell the stories of the ingenious and elaborate pranks you got us mixed up in. You were always so clever. I’m dying to hear what great things you have accomplished.

Solomon Salvatore: I’m an auto mechanic.

Simp: Oh. … That’s great. Really?

Salv: Yep. But I’ve enjoyed it. Soon after graduation, I got married and had a couple of kids. So college was never in the cards. My eldest, Charlotte, though, is looking into college now, and so I’ve been poking around trying to help her to find the right school.

Simp: Well you’re at the perfect table then!

Sag: Has Charlotte got her eye on any particular school?

Salv: Not yet. We have been looking together, but it’s a bit overwhelming.

Simp: I’ll say. There are many options. Is she interested in any particular major or area of study?

Salv: She isn’t really sure. What I have been telling her, though, is that what is most important is getting a really high quality education.

Sag: Exactly. Fortunately the Northeast has an abundance of excellent schools.

Salv: So I hear. But the more I look, the more confused I get.

Sag: Why is that?

Salv: I can’t figure out what high quality education is. For that matter, I can’t even figure out what education is supposed to be for.


Education Imparts Knowledge and Skills for Career

The server approaches.

Fabio: Good evening. My name is Fabio, and I will be your server this afternoon. Welcome to Diete, our premiere restaurant, where your health is our first concern. Would you like to hear our menu offerings?

Simp: I don’t think I will be interested in any specials today. I will order off the menu.

Fabio: Ahh, I am sorry. I was not clear. You see at Diete, we offer a variety of distinct menus. You can order from any one of them.

Sag: Different menus? How novel.

Fabio: Yes, we have the Vegan menu, the Paleo menu, the Meat and Protein menu, the Fruitarian menu, and the Liquid Diet Shake menu.

Simp: Ahh. I don’t suppose you serve Cobb salad?

Fabio: Absolutely.

Salv: Why so many menus, if I may ask?

Fabio: Of course. Our patrons seek perfect health and have a variety of dietary needs. Naturally we seek to provide service for all approaches to dietary health.

Salv: But these menus seem contradictory. How can they all promote health?

Fabio: Each patron has a specially designed program which they select with the help of their beautification advisor.

Sag: Beautification advisor? What in the world?

Salv: So the patrons come to the resort already knowing what is healthy, or do you teach them?

Fabio: Ah. Perhaps you would like to speak to our resident nutritionist. He would be glad to help you if you would like to hear more about our programs.

Sag: Look, could I just get a Cobb salad as well?

Fabio: Of course. And you sir, would you like to look at one of our menus?

Salv: No, thanks. I’ll go with the Cobb.

Fabio: Wonderful. Is there anything else I can get you? Drinks, appetizers?

Simp: That will be all I think.

Fabio: Thank you.

Sag: Odd. But if I may pick up where we left off, what is the source of your confusion about education?

Salv: My daughter’s got me thinking. What exactly is education, and what is it for? I have been looking for someone to help me sort it out but have not had any luck. I have this bad habit of asking too many questions, and my conversations go nowhere. To be totally honest, it was my hope that I might get some help from you two, which is partly why I tried to get us all together.

Sag: Ahh. Well I am glad you did. I am sure we would be happy to help.

Simp: Absolutely.

Salv: The problem is that I have heard so many conflicting ideas about education. I am having trouble making sense of it all.

Simp: Well, I don’t think it is all that complicated really. At Haverford University, we seek to impart knowledge, knowledge that opens up opportunities, knowledge that leads ultimately to a career of the student’s own choosing.

Sag: Exactly. Knowledge broadens perspectives. As they say, knowledge is power.

Salv: So they say. I wish I could remember half of the knowledge I learned in school. It all seems to have faded away, most of it about a week after the exam. But maybe with high quality schools, students don’t forget. Is that right?

Simp: Forgetting is a problem, no doubt. But it seems clear that if the students forget they have not been educated.

Salv: So how long do they have to remember?

Sag: I am not sure there is any clear length of time so long as they remember long enough that their knowledge becomes useful to them.

Salv: Oh. So are you saying knowledge that is not useful to them is not part of education?

Simp: This whole conversation needs to be put into context. The knowledge that students gain during their university education is directed to their career. They need to have the kind of information that will allow them to be successful in their chosen career path. As they pursue their career, those things that they learned and continue to use will be remembered. Other things may become less important to them, and they will forget.

Salv: Seems like the job is the goal then.

Simp: Clearly.

Salv: Then you offer students job-specific classes.

Sag: More or less, yes. That is what the major is for, of course.

Salv: Charlotte has one friend that has his sights set on being a computer programmer. Another has been saying he wants to be a chef, like that Ramsay guy on TV. So do they take only computer and cooking classes?

Sag: That is not exactly what I meant.

Salv: Oh. What did you mean?

Simp: Obviously, we don’t teach cooking classes.

Salv: How can he learn to be a chef?

Sag: Besides there are things that a student must know that don’t directly pertain to the specific job.

Salv: What sort of things?

Sag: How to write essays and work in groups, for instance.

Salv: Why must a cook know how to write an essay?

Simp: Well a cook does not come to a university for an education.

Salv: A cook needs no education?

Simp: He needs on-the-job training or to go to a culinary institute.

Salv: Is on-the-job training education?

Simp: Of a sort.

Salv: But, if Charlotte’s friend can learn the knowledge he needs on his job as a cook, what is the reason for going to a university for an education?

Simp: There is no reason, if he wants to be a cook. But some jobs are much more demanding that cooking. They require years of education and the development of complex skills. Employers in these fields are looking to hire someone who is ready to work right away. It is up to the employee to obtain those skills.

Salv: Seems like a raw deal to me.

Simp: Why?

Salv: Restaurants will pay their employees to learn the skills they need, but these other employers expect their employees to pay a whole heap of money for job skills. Cooking doesn’t sound so bad, if you ask me.

Simp: It just wouldn’t work for the employers to do the training. That is best left to those who specialize in skill development, universities and colleges.

Salv: Hold up a second. I think I am confused again.

Simp: Why?

Salv: I had thought you said that education is imparting knowledge. But now you say that a student learns skills at a university. So I can’t tell which it is—imparting knowledge or gaining skills?

Sag: I would think both skills and knowledge are important.

Salv: I see. There are certain skills, like writing essays, and various kinds of knowledge, like programming languages that comprise education.

Sag: Yes.

Salv: And since there are many jobs, there must be many different educations: one education for the programmer, one for the teacher, and one for the cook.

Sag: Exactly.

Salv: Hmm, I know I’m probably missing something, but I don’t see why a programmer would go to a university.

Sag: What do you mean that a programmer would not want to go to a university?

The Server arrives with lunch.

Fabio: Here you are. I have your salads for you. Is there anything else I can get for you now?

Simp: Not at the moment. Thanks.

Fabio: I do not want to impose, but based on your earlier questions, I have asked our house nutritionist, Lemuel Gullet, to come over so he can address any concerns you might have about health. Lemuel?

Lemuel: I understand you had some questions about our menus?

Salv: Just that the approaches to nutrition and health in your menus seem, well, if I may say, rather contradictory. So I was wondering what you meant by health.

Salv [to his companions]: I hope you don’t mind if I ask.

Sag: By all means.

Lemuel: I am tickled you have taken an interest. At the All Seasons, our motto, taken from the famous poem, is “Health is Beauty and Beauty is Health.”

Sag: You mean truth.

Lemuel: Indeed I do. For our motto expresses a profound truth. Look around you. Are not those who are healthy also beautiful? The beauty they display from their pleasing gait to their rosy cheeks speaks of their health.

Sag: No, “Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth.” I meant that you substituted health for truth. … In your motto.

Lemuel: Exactly. It is true that there is no substitution for health. I agree completely. We thus design our menus in a way that will help our guests to achieve simultaneously health and beauty. Now different guests have different desires as to how best to achieve those dual goals, and so we cater to their desires. It is all rather beautiful.

Salv: Can an ugly person be healthy?

Simp: You know, Solomon, perhaps you could take this up later with our sage nutritionist.

Salv: Of course. Perhaps later, Mr. Gullet.

Lemuel: I am available any time.

Server and Lemuel Gullet leave.

Read more….


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