A common expression for being thoroughly engaged by a book is to get “lost” in it. That’s true enough as far as it goes. You do lose track of immediate surroundings and enter another world that is usually unfamiliar, but you also get “found” in it.

I  recently enjoyed such an experience on a flight to Texas where, a long time ago, I was a college student. I read an article in The Atlantic titled “The Man Who Died for the Liberal Arts.” It was about a letter written in 1942 by a recent Dartmouth graduate who was a navy officer on his way to the Pacific (where he would die in battle). In this letter to the writer’s kid brother, he made the case for studying literature, history, and other subjects that would have no immediate applicability to the war effort or for making a living. In the circumstances, it was a hard sell. Colleges across the country “were transitioning into training grounds for America’s armed forces.”

And so it is today. We are not at war in the sense of a declared military confrontation with another nation, but resistance to education in the liberal arts is strong – probably as strong as it has ever been.

For one thing, jobs for new graduates with any kind of degree are thought to be harder to come by than in the past. I’m not so sure about that. Sixty-three years ago, when I graduated from an elite liberal arts program, I had so much difficulty finding satisfactory work, I had to go to graduate school, then start a business. In that regard, it seems little has changed. Graduate with a degree in English and you probably have to get a teaching certificate or go to law school or become a tattoo artist or otherwise find a way to make a living.

Besides that, the cost of a four-year degree has become exorbitant. But that comparison is not quite what it seems either. Many students do not pay the sticker price, and loans (which increasingly are forgiven) are available.

Nevertheless, the perceived pressure to obtain from college a marketable skill and some sort of certification is enormous. Few question the common sense of that approach. I am going to try, though.

What do you get from studying the humanities and social sciences? A lot. And it is invaluable. But describing the gain is difficult. It’s not subject to the words and concepts that we normally employ when measuring costs versus benefits. The monetary value of reading Keats and studying film and coming to grips with the basics of biology and classical civilization is zero or close to it. And it doesn’t matter if it comes tuition free as mine did. Few employers hire liberal arts graduates; I doubt that any actively seek them. The justification for liberal arts education lies elsewhere.

It can lead to living in a larger world; it enables thinking “outside the box; it facilitates being able to see things from the other’s point of view; it leads to greater appreciation of the arts; it can make you less gullible and more skeptical.

Some reject these outcomes as worthless. The guards at Dachau listened to Wagner. And, yawn, what’s so great about living in a bigger world? Seeing things from another’s point of view is often seen as a betrayal of one’s own values.

There is one (at least) outcome of a liberal arts education for which there is not a persuasive  counterargument of even the slightest force. It fosters serious reading, which is critical to democracy in particular and civilization as a whole. It is also a surpassing pleasure. Of course, an education in the humanities and social sciences is not a requirement for being a serious reader. Some actuaries, carpenters, defensive tackles, and others who are trained in a specialty read widely, but odds are, they are less likely to do so than those who labored for a year of two over a foreign language and who learned what a diminished fifth is in a music appreciation class and who became familiar to some extent with history and foreign relations.

Beyond this I cannot go. If we do not agree that the world is better off with people getting lost and found in books, the future belongs to the internet. God forbid.



 A Franklin Manor Christmas and A Franklin Manor Epiphany. Deep-snow, magic realism.

12,000 Miles of Road Thoughts. Old Van, Old Man, Recovering Hippie, Dying CatTravel narrative/memoir