John Havelock: Humanities provide the compass for a well-lived life

John Havelock

I recently learned of a college student named Aaron, a history major who was having doubts about the wisdom of that choice. Those doubts are understandable, for there is more than a small dose of snickering at this time of year regarding the employability of the newly minted graduate who majored in English, history, political science, philosophy or one of the "soft" social sciences. Our own university emphasizes and applauds its role in preparing students for "jobs," to the exclusion of other functions of higher education.

While we can salute those who have made up their mind as to which part of the economic machine they wish to accommodate, there are other functions of university education that surpass in importance preparation for the first job. Education's first task, barely begun in K-12, is to assist the often reluctant learner to figure out how civilization works and what opportunities, as well as hazards, it holds for each of us.

To sort through these opportunities, the student must, at the same time, learn to recognize the purposes of a life well lived. Whether or not the student believes she has settled on values, a liberal education, including a course in philosophy, will help the novice to get them in proper order.

For example, it is not self-evident to the emerging mind that the deepest satisfactions in life come from the capacity to understand and assist one's fellow humans. The untutored mind tends first to think in terms of ambitious self-satisfaction, what others might call "greed." The value in service to others, articulated in every religion and announced by the second commandment of the standard Bible, is often seen as sacrificial. It is not. It is the richest source of meaning in life.

One life is little more than a millisecond in the course of the civilization of which you are inescapably a part. You don't want to waste it. Your influence on all the lives around you, your spouse and children, other children -- including your support for their education -- relations with fellow employees and friends, all these influences are your contribution. You may not realize this until you approach the edge but what comes after you is more important than your life. Your life's value is in its contribution.

Even if you think your values are already in place, the humanities broaden and strengthen understanding, providing the compass to the rich, well-lived life.

As the baby emerging from the womb knows only light, dark, noise, comfort and hunger, so the college freshman understands only a small fraction of the elements providing meaning to her soon-to-begin adult life. Literature is our guide to understanding the varieties of human character, offering clues by which we make our own way, even better with some backup from psychology and sociology.

If you don't know where you have been, you don't know where you are going. If you don't know who came before you, you don't know who you are. Literature, with history, offers a sense of the context of contemporary life. How did we get here? How have the mechanisms of social life evolved, from tribalism through nationhood? What's next? Political science offers that understanding of the processes of power that go far beyond the intuitive, negative and often ill-informed sense of how things happen, offered on the Internet or by popular culture.

We live in a web of institutional circumstances that often seem permanently and frustratingly fixed, a labyrinth of obstacles blocking life's objectives. A complex of ladders offers a better analogy, with shifting technologies altering the reach and strength of each. You will have a more accurate idea of how long these ladders are, the missing rungs, the elements of rot, their overlapping routes, if you know history, literature, political science and other studies of human circumstances.

Our races to the moon and other amazing technologies of science, such as nuclear bombs, have passed by self-knowledge on the ladders of life, to our endangerment. The 18th century poet Alexander Pope had it right:

"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan. The proper study of Mankind is Man."

So, whatever you may think as you survey the job market, Aaron, you got your major right.

John Havelock is a senior lawyer, former Alaska attorney general and retired UAA professor of justice.

John Havelock