St. Olaf Magazine | Spring 2018

The enduring value of the humanities

Illustration by Eric Hanson ’77

As the founder of GW Randall & Associates, a successful financial planning firm in Santa Rosa, California, Greg Randall ’96 spends much of his time in the fiscal weeds. He performs investment analyses, financial research, and future value calculations — all essential components of the full-scale financial plans he creates for individuals and families.

But what makes him successful isn’t just his facility with financial algorithms and investment formulas, though that’s essential: it’s the real, human connection he makes with his clients as they work through their entire financial picture. “All of my work with clients starts with questions,” he says. “What are your most deeply held values? What’s meaningful and significant to your life? What is your goal for your money?”

That connection is where Randall’s degree in the classics has proved to be indispensable. The readings of Plato and Seneca, for example, taught him to think about ethics, values, and what matters most in life. He uses those insights to help his clients uncover their own foundational beliefs and link them to their finances.

In fact, Randall believes learning from history’s most revered thinkers is so critical that he recommends it to all the young planners he meets. “Financial planners who are early in their career will ask me about what books they should read to know financial planning,” he says. “I say — only half in jest — ‘Go read Shakespeare.’ Our business is all about what motivates people: their dreams, their fears, and their deeply held beliefs. And that’s what Shakespeare’s [works] are all about.”

Randall is far from alone in finding lasting value in the humanities. Nearly two-thirds of Fortune 500 CEOs have degrees in the humanities, and in the past few years, Google has hired thousands of employees with humanities backgrounds.

Close study of the humanities provides people with the critical thinking tools needed to draw sharper conclusions about the ideas, stories, and persuasion we encounter every day.

It’s more than just our working lives where a background in the humanities has an impact. St. Olaf President David R. Anderson ’74 believes that a robust exposure to the humanities provides tools that help us think about life’s most important questions. “The humanities acquaint you with the best that has been thought and said,” he says. “[The study of these disciplines] hones your ability to express yourself, and enriches your understanding of who you are and of the world in which you live.”

The history of the humanities can be traced back to ancient Greece, and its lasting influence is a testament to its value. Readings in classics, religion, literature, and philosophy help us frame some of the most tangled and profound questions we face in the 21st century — questions about the meaning of life, the importance of morality, and who we are as humans. The humanities can also help us think through the questions that hover just above every story in the news and every interaction we have with one another: How do we determine what’s true and what’s false? Whom can we trust? How do we move forward to make a better world?

At a time when technology is taking us deep into cyber space and scientists are burrowing into our genes to uncover the puzzles of disease and life itself, the study of the humanities is anything but irrelevant. It is essential, helping us put all of our ambitions into context and allowing us to interrogate the fundamental questions about what it really means to be human.

What does it mean to study the humanities anyway?

At St. Olaf, the humanities are a set of disciplines — religion, history, classics, language, and philosophy. But for many at the college, the humanities as a whole are also synonymous with a process of engaging with challenging ideas and questions in a deep and systematic way.

That engagement looks different depending on the topic, says Professor of Religion Charles Wilson. “It might be the literary analysis of a poem, where we ask students to get sensitized to the minutia of expression; or it might be a close reading of a philosophically oriented material, where we ask students to attend to the claims being made,” he says.

Students are expected to wrestle with that material in a meaningful way through papers, rigorous discussion, and presentations. In turn, professors push students to go ever deeper, says Assistant Professor of Religion and Luther Scholar Anthony Bateza. They poke holes in weak arguments. They demand that students strengthen superficial analyses. They require them to remain open to ambiguous or even conflicting ideas. Says Bateza, “The humanities help students acquire a set of skills that mandate that they slow down, read carefully, and ask critical questions, [such as] ‘What does the author think that I know and want me to believe? What are the presumptions and assumptions, and how are the claims being supported?'”

The brain-bending work doesn’t just help students appreciate a given ancient text or untangle a knotty argument. It’s a skill they can apply to their daily lives. Close study of the humanities provides people with the critical thinking tools needed to make considered evaluations of and draw sharper conclusions about the ideas, stories, and persuasion we encounter every day.

Engaging in the academic disciplines that make up the humanities can help students draw meaningful parallels between the events of today and those in the past. It’s one thing, for example, to suggest that Americans are politically divided. But students of history can compare today’s partisanship to other eras of sharp political division in our country’s past, from the time of the Civil War to that of the Vietnam War. This context, and the lessons that history can teach us, may help us see a path through such conflict in ways that living in the thick of partisanship makes nearly impossible.

Similarly, the study of languages involves more than just the spoken and written word. It demands that students immerse themselves in the international cultures, identities, and histories linked to these languages. These lessons not only open a window to the larger world but also enable students to understand themselves and their culture in a global context. What does it mean when a country doesn’t value the bootstrapping individualism common to America but instead values the strength of the collective effort? Why does it matter that America reveres youth and energy while other cultures appreciate age and wisdom? Exploring the nuances of these differences can help students understand how to live and work with people who are different from them — and appreciate why others might have very different beliefs and values than they do. Such lessons are not simply about tolerance but about genuine curiosity, acceptance, and empathy.

Associate Professor of Political Science Doug Casson, who is director of the five-course Great Conversation program that focuses on the great works of Western civilization, says students in the program are constantly encouraged to think more broadly about the challenges and aspirations of humans throughout history. They don’t just read about heroes and villains; they have a chance to step into their shoes, if only for a moment. “By placing ourselves in the mind of Gilgamesh struggling against death, St. Augustine yearning for a love that lasts, or Milton’s Satan thirsting for power and recognition, we can see beyond ourselves,” he says. “We can learn to imagine lives wildly different from our own, and to consider the heartaches and hopes of such lives.”

By the same token, students are often surprised to discover that age-old texts are filled with characters who seem surprisingly relatable, and who can speak to us in ways that feel remarkably current, says Professor of English Karen Cherewatuk. Chaucer had a sense of humor. Marcus Aurelius might be the world’s first self-help author. And the #MeToo movement, while admittedly the first major women’s movement with a hashtag, is a topic that women have been writing about for hundreds of years. “People often think that it’s only at this moment in time that certain issues matter. But no,” says Cherewatuk. “So many things have been issues for hundreds of years.”

Why STEM and business need the humanities

There’s no question that science, technology, engineering, and math-linked fields are highly valued these days. One recent study by the Harris Poll, for example, found that the top four careers parents say they’d like their children to pursue are in engineering, medicine, the sciences, and nursing. Another study by firms Nominet and Parent Zone found that a full 77 percent of 12-year-olds are interested in tech careers.

But doctors, technologists, and engineers themselves often realize that what makes them stand out in the field are not their technical skills but their human ones — skills developed and enhanced through the humanities.

At St. Olaf, the humanities as a whole are also synonymous with a process of engaging with challenging ideas and questions in a deep and systematic way.

According to the medical resource Medscape, studies find that physicians who are great communicators have patients who are more adherent to therapies and who are more satisfied with care. Similarly, the Washington Post recently reported that when tech behemoth Google crunched the numbers on a wide-ranging study of its top-performing employees, it found that skills linked to the humanities — good communication, empathy, having insights into others, and making connections across complex topics — were the most important traits linked to success at the company. As a result, Google has doubled down on its commitment to hiring humanities majors.

St. Olaf faculty are not surprised.

Professor of Biology Anne Walter has long seen the value in cross-pollination between the ideas of science and the humanities. Scientists who can use their humanities education to address problems of the human condition in compelling ways, for example, often capture the world’s attention. Jared Diamond’s Collapse, about climate change and overpopulation, Oliver Sacks’s prolific writing about the human brain, and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, a meditation on cancer, were bestselling books not just because of their gripping science writing but also because they explored our deepest fears and curiosities about the world and the human condition.

In the same way, says Walter, literature can help us ask probing questions about the ethics and potential of scientific endeavors. “The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Ursula Le Guin novels — these are [stories] that help us address the ‘should we?’ of science, and help us forecast consequences,” she says. This combination of scientific knowledge and imaginative thinking goes beyond the simple findings and facts of a discipline to convey the deeper significance — and possible pitfalls — of scientific advances.

Indeed, the scientific process itself is not specifically designed to judge whether a particular innovation will lead to a better world, says Casson. And that’s where the humanities can help. “If the STEM fields offer insight into how the natural world works and how it can be manipulated in order to achieve particular goals — health, safety, efficiency, profit — we are still left with the complicated challenge of determining which goals are worth pursuing,” Casson says. “The humanities help to provide the type of perspective, empathy, humility, and judgment that can contribute to the great task of deciding how we should use our technical powers in ways most conducive to human flourishing.”

Such disciplined thought is already happening at some of the very highest levels in some unexpected places. Randall, for example, says he’s been surprised and delighted to see that the top executives at influential money management corporations have been speaking the language of the humanities. Earlier this year, for example, the CEO of the $6.3 trillion investment firm Blackrock wrote that companies must “show how [they] make a positive contribution to society,” rather than simply focus on profits. That purpose-as-much-as-profits message sent shockwaves through the investment community and led the New York Times to call it a “watershed moment on Wall Street” that “raises all sorts of questions about the very nature of capitalism.”

To Randall, it felt like a clear connection to the lessons taught in the humanities. “[The Blackrock CEO] is saying that it’s essential to think on an ethical level about your actions, and that’s the core of a classical education, studying the ethics from Socrates to Plato to Seneca,” says Randall. “It feels groundbreaking.”

An investment for life

Natalie Wussler ’19 knows that her social work classes will help her master concrete skills that will benefit her in her future career.

But her humanities classes? She says those offer a different kind of value — and may stay with her even longer. Recently, for example, she took a religion course called Blessed are the Happy? In it, she grappled with ideas of happiness set forth by Aristotle, St. Augustine, and the Bible. She wrote her final paper on free will and determinism, and she dug into ideas expressed by Martin Luther and John Calvin about how much choice we have in our lives.

Ultimately, those arguments led her to change her mind on an issue she’d once felt certain she’d understood: free will. “I was always someone who believed in free will. But after doing all the research, I can allow myself a little bit of room to see how determinism is something that’s valid too,” she says.

She loved the chance to think hard about big and ultimately unanswerable questions, and says it’s a skill she’ll carry with her for the rest of her life.

Indeed, says Assistant Professor of Classics Christopher Brunelle, the ideas from humanities-linked disciplines that students first learn to grapple with at St. Olaf often prove to be an investment with emotional dividends that pay off over a lifetime. “We often ask students to do things that will stretch them, things that they won’t necessarily fully appreciate their first time through,” he says, adding that when these students are 40 or 60 and revisit these works, they’ll find new things to be true about them.

“The humanities acquaint you with the best that has been thought and said, honing your ability to express yourself. They enrich your understanding of who you are and of the world in which you live.” — President David R. Anderson ’74

This, in the end, is the enduring value of the humanities. It’s the reason that the best works stand the test of time. As we speed through life — with increasing frenzy and unlimited information — the enduring questions and ideas of the humanities help us hone in on the things that matter most. They help us make meaning from the chaos and find connection in even our loneliest and most difficult times. They help us understand what it is to be human.