Who needs humanities, anyway, right? (Accountants?)

What’s a university for? What’s an education for?

A lot of people, including politicians and high muck-a-mucks at universities, seem to think that universities are career-training centres. They seem to think that education is a purely utilitarian beast that is all about gaining job skills that will contribute to something called a ‘healthy economy’.

So, really, why should … say … accountants study humanities?

Humanities — the liberal arts — you know, the foundations of knowledge and critical thinking that lie at the root of our civilisation and help give us the tools necessary to live wisely.

Again — why should an accountant study humanities?

This is a good question.

Certainly, the accountants I know are very glad for their mathematical training.

One of them also has a degree in geography. I don’t know if he’s glad for that degree, but I do know he’s glad for the wide knowledge he has acquired in his personal time while not studying for his certification to be a chartered accountant.

Here’s a fun fact for you:

Thomas Bulfinch was an accountant.

Thomas Bulfinch, if you’re unlucky enough never to have encountered him, was a mid-19th-century mythologist. Or mythographer? He realised that if people are going to understand and appreciate any English or American literature, they have to know Classical mythology and its referents. Whereas my approach to this is telling everyone to read The Iliad, Bulfinch wrote his own guide and retelling of Classical, Greek/Roman mythology, including selections from the poets themselves. He did this utilising his own knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages.

Because, you know, he lived from 1796 to 1867. That’s how educated people rolled back then.

He also proceeded to produce The Age of Chivalry and Legends of Charlemagne to round off the American reader’s education in the mythologies that sit at the root of Anglophone literature. I recently read Legends of Charlemagne, and it was magnificent.

In his spare time, this accountant wrote his own retellings of Classical and mediaeval myths and legends, drawing from the sources in the original languages. Which, as a Harvard grad, he knew.

Here’s another fun fact for you:

Charles Lamb (Elia) was an accountant.

Yes, the writer of Essays of Elia, who collaborated with his sister to write the children’s retellings of stories from Shakespeare, was an accountant with the East India Company. Here was a man who wrote some stunningly beautiful prose, who produced finely crafted art.

Who sat on a stool at a desk as a clerk most of the day.

Both Bulfinch and Lamb were well-educated men. Both wrote remarkable prose. Both knew ancient languages. Both worked as accountants.

The nineteenth century knew that education was not simply a matter of skills acquisition for career development. Education is about grooming the mind and the person, training in thought and beauty and knowledge to live wisely and do what you love, whether that’s at work or at leisure, and do what you love very well.

In today’s world, I fear that we have too strong a division between the ‘artists’ and the ‘accountants’, and this is to the detriment of the ‘artists’ and ‘accountants’ both.

We need to rethink education. I hope I can be involved in that as I enter the academic job market.

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2 thoughts on “Who needs humanities, anyway, right? (Accountants?)

  1. hayesworldview

    You should peruse Nancy Pearcy’s “Saving Leonardo” in which she talks about a fact/value dichotomy. She talks about how in the 19th century and after (and somewhat in the 18th) we started to really emphasize this idea that there are subjects and disciplines that are facts (math, logic, science, economics etc…) and others that are “values” which are completely subjective (music, art, literature, faith). This is why in art it is all about “taste” but in science you must tow the line or be considered “ignorant” or “anti-facts.” This dichotomy is exactly what is represented in higher education and certain people talking about the “global economy” as the primary reason for education…

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