A message from President Daniels to students on the humanities

Posted in Messages

Dear Students,

When I first came to Johns Hopkins, Ralph O’Connor, a sage trustee and namesake of the O’Connor Recreation Center, gave me some good advice: “Don’t just sit in your office and get stuck behind that desk. Get out and walk the campus.”

And every time I’d see Ralph, he’d ask: “Have you walked today? Where’d you go? Who’d you see?”

Last year, on one of my now regular walkabouts around this time of year, I happened to overhear a conversation among a group of upper-class students on the Decker Quad.

One student was telling the others that he had decided not to enroll in an introductory philosophy course he had sampled during the “add/drop” period. He had been tempted to take the course in previous years, but the demands of his major and the need to take what he felt were “practical” courses seemed to render this impossible. With an exaggerated sigh, he mused that “enlightenment” would simply have to wait. For now, employability was paramount. What can you do? His friends shrugged. You gotta get a job.

The students’ conversation has stayed with me, in part because it fits into a larger, disconcerting narrative about the role of the humanities in higher education. In a time of dizzying technological achievement and rapid scientific innovation, skeptics of the humanities are questioning the usefulness of studying Aristotle, the history of the Italian Renaissance, or modern Chinese fiction. At many universities across the country, beset by low enrollments and a lack of university support, humanities course offerings and faculty members are dwindling. At meetings of university presidents, the humanities are frequently referred to as the “fragile disciplines.”

Over the last year, I have returned time and again to the Decker Quad conversation. In hindsight, I regret not barging into the conversation to argue for taking that introductory philosophy course. So, somewhat belatedly, and hopefully with greater clarity than I might have mustered in the moment, I want to share with you the things I wish I had said that day.

I would have started by reminding the student that, for many decades in our country, college graduates were not deemed truly educated unless they had mastered philosophy, literature, political theory, and history. In the past, the core role of higher education was to invite students into the millennia-spanning conversations about what it means to be alive, the definition of justice, and the tension between tyranny and democracy, among others. Fostering engagement with these issues continues to stand as a critical part of the university’s function in society.

I would have told the student (gently, of course) that he was misinformed about the job market. It is true that many employers are looking for students with specialized technical skills and competencies, but they are also looking for other capabilities. As our world is transformed by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation, the uniquely human qualities of creativity, imagination, discernment, and moral reasoning will be the ultimate coin of the realm. All these skills, as well as the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively are honed in humanities courses.

Further, I would have argued that while a degree anchored in the sciences is an important prerequisite for many jobs, it is not the only route. As evidence, look no further than the founders of companies like LinkedIn, Slack, and Flickr, who are among the many tech entrepreneurs with degrees in the humanities and who credit that training for their success in the tech sector. Or look closer to home—at Susan Daimler, for instance, an English major turned serial entrepreneur who co-founded Buyfolio and SeatGuru before joining the leadership ranks at Zillow. Or Bill Miller, our generous benefactor and Wall Street investor extraordinaire. (His Legg Mason fund famously beat the S&P 500 for a record 15 consecutive years.) A former philosophy graduate student, Bill recently gave $75 million dollars to our Philosophy Department. Heck, even Mike Bloomberg, a 1964 electrical engineering graduate, took humanities courses. (Occidental Civilization from the 18th Century to Present and Philosophic Problems, if you are wondering.)

And contrary to the widely held belief that humanities majors have a hard time getting jobs, recent studies show that those with humanities degrees are thriving in the workplace, experiencing low rates of unemployment, and reporting high levels of job satisfaction. Furthermore, the ratio between average median incomes for humanities degree holders and those with business, engineering, or health and medical sciences degrees has been shown to narrow over the course of a career.

But the case for the humanities can also be understood in less transactional terms.

I would have urged the student on Decker Quad to bear in mind the all-too-precious time he had as an undergraduate at Hopkins. To look at it not merely as career preparation, but more so as foundational preparation for a life well lived. Indeed, since Socrates, thinkers have extolled the vital role a humanities education plays in encouraging citizens to lead an “examined life.” It cultivates critical thinking, self-reflection, empathy, and tolerance, the usefulness of which only becomes more apparent as one navigates the challenges—over months, years, and decades—that inevitably attend even the most joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

Finally, I would have said that the time spent engaging in humanistic inquiry will allow the student to be a better, more informed, more capable citizen. This is especially resonant in our present moment of uncertainty and division. When my student interlocutor inevitably faced—as I’m sure he would have—moments of ethical decision making, of sorting out fact from fiction on social media, and of reconciling his individual aspirations with his obligations to the communities in which he dwelled, he would be employing the habits of discernment and deliberation that have distinguished the humanistic tradition for centuries.

Now, I have no illusions that my imagined conversation (albeit somewhat one-sided) rises to the level of Socrates’ dialogue in The Republic. But I hope you’ll allow me to borrow the medium of fictional conversation to convey my message to you: Hopkins believes in the essential value of humanistic inquiry and its capacity to aid you in realizing your aspirations and building lives you want to live and of which you will be proud.

So, as you make your choices this week, next semester, or in the years ahead, I hope you’ll consider taking a course on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, delving into modern poetry, or actually picking up that long-ago conversation between Socrates and his fellows. I’ll look forward to hearing all about it when I run into you on Decker Quad.

Warm regards,

Ronald J. Daniels