Useful Knowledge

One of the great ironies of an age in which college attendance has steadily increased is the declining percentage of people attending those institutions who emerge with a genuine education. In the past, the “man of letters” (what should now be the “person of letters”) was widely admired; to be deemed a polymath was high praise.

I am a college professor. I’m pro-education. And I want to preface what I’m about to write by  emphasizing that I have absolutely nothing against job training, practical skills, or the transmittal of “useful knowledge.” The inculcation of skills and information required to obtain and keep employment is clearly an important endeavor–both for the individual and for society–and the increasingly technical nature of work in the 21st Century often necessitates a significant amount of training.

But both individuals and society pay a steep price when we substitute the transmittal of useful knowledge for a full, well-rounded education.

I was prompted to share this “reflection” (okay, rant) by a Ross Douthat column in the New York Times. I often disagree with Douthat, but he offers a thoughtful perspective on many of the issues of the day. In this column, he was mourning the eclipse of the Humanities by our all-consuming focus on technocratic subjects.

Douthat approvingly references a recent book about a group of Christian Humanists who were active during the war; he agrees with its author that neither Christian Humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the “spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.”

By coincidence, Jacobs’s interesting, depressing book has come out just after an interesting, depressing analysis of the steepening decline in the share of college students majoring in English, philosophy, religion, history and similar pursuits.

The analyst is a historian named Ben Schmidt, who just five years ago wrote an essay arguing that the decline of the humanities was overstated, that enrollment in humanistic majors had declined in the 1970s, mostly as women’s employment opportunities began switching to more pre-professional tracks, but that since then there has been a basic stability, at best a soft declension.

But now he’s revised his argument, because the years since the Great Recession have been “brutal for almost every major in the humanities.” They’ve also been bad for “social science fields that most closely resemble humanistic ones — sociology, anthropology, international relations and political science.” Meanwhile the sciences and engineering have gained at the expense of humanism, and with them sports management and exercise studies…

Douthat  suggests that the problem is “the one that Auden identified seventy years ago.” In a culture that is eager for “useful knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, “the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts.” So, he says,

they rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

Douthat would encourage the study of history and literature and poetry by reinvigorating the role of religion and metaphysics in studies of  the human condition. I disagree, but in any event, I think it’s safe to say that ship has sailed. In any event, the humanities do not need extrinsic or theological justification: as Alexander Pope admonished us,

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

When an “education” is limited to the transmission of technocratic skills–when we are teaching students how to derive the one correct answer to that math problem or the one correct way to program that computer–there is a very real danger that we are creating a culture in which every issue has a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer.

The humanities teach us to appreciate the complexities of human cognition, emotion and interaction. They require us to wrestle with ethical and moral questions in thorny and confounding context, and challenge us to see different perspectives and appreciate new insights.
They deepen our humanity, our capacity for critical analysis, and our humility.
You can be well-trained without ever studying the humanities, but you can’t be well-educated–and we desperately need a well-educated citizenry.


  1. I completely agree with the value of the humanities – though I empathize entirely with those who look at $60,000 of debt to earn $25,000 a year and won’t do it.

  2. I agree with this statement…”They deepen our humanity, our capacity for critical analysis, and our humility.”

    However, that sounds like a liberal, and there aren’t too many jobs in today’s technocratic world for liberal thinkers. “We need workers who can show up to work every day with a positive attitude willing to work for substandard wages so CEOs and shareholders can make a profit.”

    You should read some of the comments under articles in the #FakeNews spewed by the IndyStar. They slam the writers for being liberals all the time. A Gannett owned corporatist newspaper doesn’t employ truth-seeking journalists who can connect the dots between industry and our government. They’d lose advertisers who would seal the fate of the paper.

    Hopefully, someone from Purdue can chime in and tell us how Mitch has been able to lock in tuition prices for several years. A recent source told me that Purdue is fastly becoming the school of choice for Chinese students paying exorbitant tuition subsidizing local students.

    One of Ball State’s and the Chambers pet project for Muncie Community Schools is called Pathways. I need to learn more about the details, but from what I gather, it’s sorting our students by aptitude or test scores. Instead of college, this C student should be trained to work in a local factory requiring these appropriate skills. Trade school for you! Military for D students??

    “Well rounded citizens” are needed in the USA, but our Fascist government is colluding with industry and are calling the shots and making policies for the betterment of the industry.”

    Liberal thinkers have been cast as THE problem because we question new and existing policies based on critical thinking skills. The want do-bots NOT thinking-bots.

    The newspapers love to open their pages to economists but not sociologists. (Hint, hint)

    This forced feeding of corporatocracy is causing civil unrest and disrupting political life. It will get worse before it gets better. It’s a global issue as well.

  3. I, too, am a college professor, in a school of business (with my office just down the hall from Sheila’s). I am also an engineering undergrad (many years ago). While a large part of my education has been technocratic, I certainly value the humanities that I was “forced” to take in my undergrad program.

    The only undergrad professor, whose name I remember, is an English professor (Dr. Crater). He had developed some rather unique ways of keeping the attention of his engineering undergrads. While I do not remember anything specific that he tried to get us to understand, his impact was to get us to realize that the really important questions have no set answers. This is an idea that I emphasize to my business undergrads. “It all depends” is a phrase that, I expect, they get tired of hearing.

    The challenge to the humanities and those who major in these areas of study is to explain to society at large how these fields of study are of value to society. One cannot assume that “society” will somehow intrinsically understand this value. How to communicate this value? Well, I am not at all sure how to do this. Perhaps other readers of this column will have some ideas.

  4. It’s about critical thinking, not problem-solving. I am a scientist, but I’m so old that I had humanities and even foreign language requirements when I attended college; I had to pass a German comprehension before I qualified to get my master’s degree. I also had a class in Fortran – anyone remember that? It’s about seeing nuances and making an informed guess.

  5. It isn’t just that “every issue has a right answer and a wrong answer”… it is that those without an education in the humanities are most often the ones who cannot see ALL of the issues.

  6. I found this article last night. It concerns yesterday’s subject Get The Lead Out and ArcerlorMittal.

    U.S. Steel, ArcelorMittal both propose cutting health care benefits.
    ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel collectively made more than $2.1 billion in profit last quarter, when steel prices hovered over a robust $900 a ton and tariffs slowed the near-record tide of cheap imports.
    U.S. Steel announced Thursday it would invest $750 million in Gary Works, and ArcelorMittal said earlier in the week it would spend $330 million to expand a plant in Brazil.
    But the steelmakers are saying health insurance costs for U.S. employees and retirees are too high.

    U.S. Steel proposed cutting retiree health care benefits earlier this week, the United Steelworkers union said in an update to members. And ArcelorMittal continued to push for health care cuts that could end up costing Northwest Indiana families up to $8,000 per year in out-of-pocket costs.

    After agreeing to no pay raises during the last round of negotiations, the USW has been pushing to share in the companies’ rising fortunes now that the cyclical industry has turned around.
    Sounds like America – No pay raises and Cut benefits. If we had Universal Health Care or Single Payer here in the USA, retire Health Care Costs would not be an issue.

    Now back to our regularly scheduled programing.

  7. More than forty years later, the one class that I couldn’t get enough of in high school was titled “Current Issues and Values”. We reviewed current news topics and held discussions about our thoughts on how we viewed situations and our potential solutions. Topics were discussed so that we could hear and understand different points of view from the other students. It was all about critical thinking and being able to listen to and really hear others’ views about current issues.

    To this day I believe every high school student should be required to take a class like this one. It was an elective back then and was dropped by the administration after a couple years. Maybe it was dropped due to a lack of interest.

    I never cared for literature class where I was forced to read books and poetry that I had absolutely no interest in whatsoever, yet those classes are still a requirement today. I learned nothing from them! I was a voracious reader from the time I was in first grade, so making me read something that I didn’t care about made no sense. Such a waste of time and effort. I cannot think of even one positive thing that I learned in literature classes. Ugh.

    My college majors were in economics and finance. Humanities classes were not on my radar, yet, like the rest of the readers and commenters on this blog, I very much appreciate lively discussions and learning the viewpoints of others about current issues and values.

  8. Higher education college type and trade schools should not be mutually exclusive. If your Air Conditioning stops running, you want a person who can repair, or install a new system. We can each make a contribution.

    Critical thinking and the ability to analyze sources should be rigorously taught in K-12. Science does not always involve one plus one equals two. Darwin is a good example. Science today is suspect by the Theocrats. Science, which requires critical thinking is anathema to the system of blind belief.

  9. IMHO it all starts very early in life. People no longer sit and read to their children. Children who aren’t read to grow up not reading and seem to be incurious (there’s your if, then else, Daleb). I spend time every other week with young people from the local high schools and colleges. I have met a young man who wants to be a great author, but told me he doesn’t read. I met another young man who fancies himself the next Picasso, but who doesn’t know that Picasso was a cubist. I was advised by a young lady that reading is a waste of time.

    I suppose I could admire their imaginative pursuit of greatness without knowledge, but I am simply saddened beause I know some of what they are missing.

  10. “Useful Knowledge”; always an interesting subject of conversation at social gatherings as well as corporate conferences and government decision making committee meetings. Consider the basis of “useful knowledge” of Trump’s appointees with those with higher level educations appointed to high level positions having nothing to do with their education or field of expertise. Are they among those who have been “promoted beyond their abilities” by the uneducated, most powerful man on earth who is mentally and emotionally unstable? What “Useful Knowledge” was made use of by our higher educated, experienced, elected government officials who have put this entire country at risk of destruction either through self-destruction or as we sit in the cross hairs of nuclear weapons by our enemies with doubtful assistance from our once strong allies?

    “But both individuals and society pay a steep price when we substitute the transmittal of useful knowledge for a full, well-rounded education.”

    “…there is a very real danger that we are creating a culture in which every issue has a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer.”

    We are currently living in that culture “in which every issue has a ‘right’ answer and a ‘wrong’ answer” as we watch Trump and Giuliani give us those answers throughout the day and sometimes into the night. Giuliani explained it in an easy to understand (and determine who is right) when he announced “Truth is in the eye of the beholder.” That bit of wisdom followed his announcement that “facts change”; his legal explanation for Trump’s “alternative facts”. This is a dangerous combination of people in power; one educated in the law but ignorant of the humanities; speaking for one who is both ignorant of education and the humanities and who spouts that ignorance to the world. This is where we, with either formal or through experience education, need knowledge of the the “humanities”. We need no formal education to know we are currently mired in deep doo-doo.

    “You can be well-trained without ever studying the humanities, but you can’t be well-educated–and we desperately need a well-educated citizenry.”

    Currently; it is that uneducated citizenry who are following and supporting our uneducated leader; those of us educated through formal venues or through years of experience outnumber them but haven’t been spurred to the level of action (or supportive inaction) we witness daily by the current Trump administration. We don’t have time to avail ourselves of formal education to undo this mess; we need to use the “useful knowledge” available to us and make use of it NOW.


  11. Mark,

    “The challenge to the humanities and those who major in these areas of study is to explain to society at large how these fields of study are of value to society. One cannot assume that “society” will somehow intrinsically understand this value. How to communicate this value? Well, I am not at all sure how to do this. Perhaps other readers of this column will have some ideas.”

    I believe there’s a tremendous value in sociology, especially if it is fused with engineering and other fields of endeavor such as: sports, military, and the law. You can then blend it all into one world view followed up by COMMUNICATING it through worthwhile ACTION.

    I was very fortunate to have had in the 50’s a tremendous MENTOR, as an undergraduate at the University of Pennslyvania (Wharton), Professor E. Digby Baltzell, the SOCIOLOGIST who was the author of “The Protestant Establishment” and “Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class” and other important books. He coined the acronym: W.A.S.P. [white anglo-saxon protestant).

    Consequently, I have never been surprised by the actions of the OLIGARCHY ever since my days as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. My first choice had been M.I.T., but my father, who controlled my large trust fund, insisted on Penn. Looking back, I’m glad it worked out the way it did.

  12. Your blog today spoke powerfully of my own experience. I find that I use all my liberal arts undergraduate education in psychology, sociology, philosophy and other subjects at least as often as I use my graduate studies. Both the critical thinking skills and the content have been invaluable, though at the time I would frequently go on rants with my friends about the lack of relevance of these subjects to my chosen profession.

  13. I took a degree in economics with a minor in political science before going to law school after briefly flirting with the idea of pursuing a PHD in economics. I am not sure what such an education prepared me for, and neither are, I’ll wager, those who concocted the curriculum.

    Thus we have STEM Einsteins who are brilliant philosophers and occasional philosophers who are brilliant scientists. My now-deceased wife, a university professor, often lectured me on Descartes and Dewey, the tabula rasa and social education aficionados, respectively, and I tried to fit those examples into the Holmes of law and the Pikettys and Stiglitzes in economics, but without success. I am not smart enough to distinguish between STEM and the humanities to come up with appropriate courses to best flesh out those who hitch their academic wagons to those stars and greatly suspect those who claim to offer the answers in academic design.

    My wife, the intellectual in the family, was a big fan of vocational education as she recognized the continuing need for master plumbers, welders and other such specialists in this real world we all inhabit, and like her husband, a pro-labor pro-union liberal Democrat. She was also an artist of note, specializing in seascapes, while her husband could not draw a straight line with a ruler. So how to fashion a foolproof curriculum to satisfy specific requirements for an academic degree? Color me illiterate.

  14. Indeed! The sad fact is that many young people and those who have worked in jobs that serve others have seen the financial insecurity around them and now focus on making money. While academia searches for more ways to support the STEM fields they sell away their mission for named new buildings and interest based centers of inquiry.

  15. Crazy me… why not insist that all high schools teach civics, ethics, and a course in the origins of democracy? Then that plumber or auto mechanic you hire would hopefully be able to discern political bs from real intelligent leadership.

  16. In my mind we are entering a sort of ‘enforced Dark Age’ by sheer social financial pressures – This is the point in history of nations when art becomes garish and gaunt or over done and for nothing more than opulence, the wealthy accumulate all the wealth and the rest fend for themselves until at last they awaken in frustration and anger and EAT THE RICH. Yet they who cut the funds for education were well benefited by many of those major institutions! The only ones cuts to education affects are those who need supplemental funding for their education – the rest don’t give a damn their ‘connections’ through old money or whatever scheme of social networking get them where they need to be. And tell me I am wrong: Danforth Quayle, G. W. Bush, D. J. Trump, and how many others?… The Humanities, Art, Literature – oh it is all bullshit!!! mr. trump says so – he doesn’t read… look what he is! (an ignorant piece of inert matter, that is what he and his ilk are! Dead in the brain and don’t know it.) If I did not have my library and my studies to indulge in – I would curl up and die! I have been an artist and avid book seeker all my life, we didn’t have but three books in the house when I was a very young child I used to get my mother to buy me Golden Books on things like ancient civilizations, math, and astronomy, and I started my love of books and studies in odd things. And now I have so many books (that I need for reference etc.,) that some are still stacked awaiting shelving. To me a home without learning isn’t a home at all – it is a pen of ignorant animals. The humanities are what make us a well-rounded person but what is more; a well-educated society. But that is not what those who want to ‘lead’ have in mind anymore. So remember, smart or educated you may be, it changes nothing to sit and talk… if you don’t like something: GET UP AND CHANGE IT.

  17. “Useful Knowledge” will have no place in the DeVos – Pastor Pence School System, which will consist of a Bible Thumping lesson plan, chock full of hell fire and damnation, along with the prosperity gospel and never question authority.

  18. In college I majored in liberal arts. I had a particularly empathetic fraternity brother – born to be an engineer – who often expressed the thought, “What are you going to do to earn money? No one will pay you if you’re not an engineer.” Ironically, I spent part of my career as a linguist and an intelligence analyst, but then 25 years as a systems engineer for IBM. Maybe he influenced me in ways I was unaware of.

    Ignorance of the humanities is no accident. Republicans have passionately pursued “The Dumbing Down of America” for many decades, hoping to make an education less attainable, and it’s paying off. Many high I.Q. people who never took courses requiring critical thinking are Trump supporters thanks to this program. For me it’s a rare treat to encounter an engineer who can think his way through a social issue and argue effectively for his conclusions. My brother, a lifelong politician and a Trump fan, graduated from Johns Hopkins with a degree in math and has always relied solely on his gut for intellectual guidance. He helps me understand how good brains go wrong.

  19. I was, according to my high school guidance counselor, born to be an engineer. So, I became one and have enjoyed every minute of it since. Well, maybe not exactly every minute. One reason that worked out for me is that I am intensely curious about everything and my education fed that need very well. I guess that means that I was deprived of humanities in college just by time. There simply was not enough time in the 4+ year schedule for much else beside STEM.

    But I didn’t stop being curious. So while I was apparently inadequately educated in college I just kept filling in the blanks on my own since.

    The best educated family that I ever met were Swiss, he was my boss when I worked for a Swiss company in Fribourg. Their secret? They never owned a TV so evenings were devoted to learning. For instance among the two parents and two children there was hardly a major language that one or all of them wasn’t fluent in. Their house I’m sure had walls but they were mostly hidden by books.

    My experience is that we have been largely deprived of all of that by entertainment media. We are addicted to wasting time while some screen antics occupy our reptilian brain.

    Formal education really does need to make us employable so by our mid 20s we can take care of ourselves and any others we bring along. The limitation of that is just a fact of life, but we have almost 3/4 of one after that in which to expand our thinking.

    We need to work on culture change that sees learning as the purpose of life and displaces our addiction to entertainment as what we do as adults of all ages.

  20. Show me a well-rounded person well-lubricated with music and I will show you someone who can be pushed in any direction. I have observed that many well-educated people fit that broad assertion, but some — a very few — do not.

    Advice on selling education in the humanities:

    Wisdom must be the goal of education, while money will always be the goal of training. It is much easier to sell education — literature, arts, sociology, psychology, etc., the soft technologies — by broadcasting that “Wisdom” is the goal; use the word; use it often. Wisdom even rings true in the Bible Belt and the Red States: Moses was not so much famous for his technical expertise as he was for his wisdom.

    It is just as important for a country to produce wise people as it is to produce skilled people; and just as fatal if it doesn’t.

    Give me a few friends who are a mixture of wisdom and technical skills, and my hapless enemies may have all the loser assholes of mere technical genius they may stupidly desire.

    Boy do we need wise people now!

  21. Right on, Sheila. Training is but a fraction of a well-rounded education. I don’t think I ever appreciated that as much before Donald Trump became President and evidence of the need for humanities.

  22. I have been saying this forever, but will repeat it now and continue to do so.

    Big Business requirements for specific skill sets have been foisted off on taxpayers. They have abandoned training employees to the needed skills in favor of hiring trained workers to fill jobs as needed (temps who aren’t given any benefits but are expected to be happy to have any job). Apprenticeships and internships often go uncompensated or minimally so. We hear cries from those hiring that they can’t find enough “qualified” candidates for openings, pushing for exemptions of highly skilled foreign workers when in reality they don’t want to pay for skills particular to their industry/trade.
    An educated voter is the raison d’etre for public education as included in our state’s Constitution. It does not say anything about job training as the ultimate goal. It does follow that if you are educated instead of only trained, you will be flexible and adapt to new demands of your life. You can be trained in new skills without having to reinvent the mouse trap every time the job market demands.
    We have been sold a bill of goods by Big Business at the cost of our education, in all the ways that the true meaning of that word.
    Following Marv’s example, I offer the definition of “education from Merriam Webster
    “knowledge, skill, and development gained from study or training”
    with the emphasis on development and study. It is something that should be exercised throughout life.

  23. Up here at (Indiana) Purdue Fort Wayne, the Purdue administration under Mitch Daniels (as part of the breakup between IU and Purdue) closed several Humanities and related departments, including French, German and Women’s Studies. I couldn’t understand closing foreign language departments, since foreign investments and trade relationships are so important in today’s economy. The justification was that the departments weren’t fiscally profitable, and there was even a book that laid out the specifications. From just glancing at it, it was hard to pick up on the underlying reasons for the specifications, but I suspected that it had something more to do with the political philosophy of Daniels for universities to generate worker drones. Part of the plan backfired when the Women’s Studies department demonstrated that they were actually a profitable department.

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