Derek Thompson wrote this very short article today in The Atlantic. Below is my comment, inspired in part by the rather arrogant title, “Humanities Major? Good luck out there.”

Why is it always assumed that humanities majors regret not earning a ton of money? (Though if we have to talk about money, it’s worth noting that humanities majors, because they have skills that you can’t get with a technical degree, end up earning a whole lot over a lifetime, because they quickly enter executive-level positions, where creative, intelligent people are highly rewarded. Not that the following article is comprehensive, or unbiased, but take a look: http://bit.ly/RU7pE).

I would never have chosen, for example, a computer science degree over my philosophy degree (though I do have a double-major — a good career strategy, I think — in psychology). Life is about more than getting technical skills. I believe sincerely that anyone pursuing an undergrad degree who hasn’t taken philosophy/political science/history classes doesn’t have the right to be called a college graduate. I’m not idealistic. And my head’s not “in the clouds.” I think hard about these things. But, of course, it’s amazing how quickly and how frequently the humanities are denigrated as “fluffy,” and their majors negatively labeled as “unrealistic” or “impractical.”

We are suffering for want of intelligent thought in the US (not to mention China). And we all know, hopefully, that ignorance is incredibly dangerous, to groups and to individuals. Isn’t it a shame, then, that degrees mean a lot less now than they used to? Their meaning has become incredibly diluted (and, consequently, so has the meaning of the stats that purport to show how educated a place is based on the number of people holding undergrad degrees… has anybody ever thought to check the *quality* of those degrees?). Higher education is failing in the US because our workforce knows how to crunch numbers but not how to think (and write), much less how to think critically about contemporary issues, like gender, race, sex, politics, culture, social justice, environmental policy, economic policy, science policy, and, more generally, what it means to be a (moral) human being, how to make important decisions, to make sincere commitments, to decide the meaning of a “meaningful” human life, to live with others, etc. What do all of these things have in common? They’re abstract problems that can’t be solved using empirical evidence alone.

So for all the disrespect for philosophers’ alleged “prejudice” in talking about “universal” categories, for all the so-called “post-modern” folks out there who like to think it’s not even worth talking about “meaning” or “justice” or “truth,” since philosophy can’t base these in facts, or that the best we can hope for is a kind of infinite pluralization of subject-positions (a la Derrida or Lyotard)… this is the most dangerous ideology we face as a society today; the most dangerous thing we can do is to continue along this line of thought, to keep plowing ahead with our eyes on the ground right in front of us, pumping out technology after technology. Look at the people whose responsibility it is to think about these things: they “steer the ship.” Scientific disciplines simply don’t have any mechanism for critical self-reflection; scientists aren’t qualified to decide what it means to do science, how science should be used — i.e., anything that’s at the “meta-” level (which requires stepping back from the microscope quite a bit).

Philosophers, professional or no, do that crucial work. Don’t ever underestimate the importance of innovative critical thinkers.

No one ever said that entering the job market with a humanities major was easy. Then again, I’d say that the extra effort is well worth the rewards I’ve gained by thinking critically for four years at a liberal arts college, rather than joining a fraternity (a host of problems there; Yale’s just the most recent case), majoring in business and “earning” a college degree at a large university by passing grade numbers 13, 14, 15, and 16… That, in all sincerity, is the kind of education that many, if not most, of our would-be citizens are getting today! As Aristotle said long ago, human beings are different than other animals because they have conscious intentionality, they have the ability to think, to reason, to debate, to communicate, etc. In short, they are “political animals.”

Logical, critical, analytical thinking is a skill that takes diligent practice. It’s the same as any other skill, whether it’s playing a musical instrument, playing a sport, or playing the stock market… But in contrast to these other activities, thought is not optional. Best to think well, then, right? It’s pathetic the number of people in this country who graduate without having read the greatest novelists, the greatest philosophers, the greatest thinkers of our shared intellectual/cultural endowment. What a waste.

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