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Dutch Fichthorn

Dutch Fichthorn

You've got to hand it to Journal Star editors — they know juxtaposition, placing items side by side for comparison and/or synthesis.

The first article reports on the state of humanities education at Nebraska colleges. The point of view assumes that the humanities, despite prevailing attitudes, may lead to lucrative jobs. The testimony from humanities students carries an apologetic tone; analysis of the human condition is valuable for its skills, not ideas.

The utilitarian job attainment attitude is shallow and fundamentally misguided. The liberal arts strive for more than skills.

Liberal arts have nothing to do with the political contrast between liberals and conservatives. Liberal arts exist to liberate one from their own prejudices — preconceived, imprudent and erroneous notions.

Thus, humanities scholars engage in the intellectual practice of critical thinking. Many mistake critical with evaluating or assessing. Critical thinking is self-directed. It commits to overcoming naïve egoism (ideas from self) and misguided socio-centrism (ideas from society). So critical thinking does not mean evaluation of ideas experiences based on tribal or personal biases.

Critical thinking is introspective — a look inward at self and one’s possible prejudices. The agency of critical thinking is rigorous study of what Matthew Arnold contends is "The best that has been thought and said." Humanities students avoid Plato’s admonishment: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Through this process, a student achieves what I believe is the true purpose of education: to make reason a habit.

Reason, engendered by the humanities, has application beyond job skills.

Esther Cepeda’s column concerning history and prejudice illustrates this application. Her piece sadly decries American youth’s ignorance of the Holocaust.

Cepeda rightly believes that "ignorance fans hatred" — and America is ignorant. The Washington Post writes: "Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day."

Students of the humanities, at such a juncture, act as Kurt Vonnegut’s "canary in the coal mine." (Canaries warned coal miners of low air levels; when the canary died, breathable air was expired.)

If students enter college with witless attitudes toward the human experience, studying history and critical thinking changes their obliviousness. They see the suffering caused by hate. Hate suffocates society’s balance, order and harmony. The humanities provide fresh air, not fresh resumes.

Finally, Cass Sunstein contends that presidential candidates must tell the truth. Sunstein admits the current holder of the White House "is hardly the first president to fail to tell the truth." But today’s indifference to truth "is not something the United States has ever seen before."

A study of humanities reveals that lies undermine reason. One cannot make informed decisions through deception. As Sunstein asserts: "Lies treat people as mere objects. When you lie, you fail to respect the autonomy, and the dignity, of other people. You use them as a means to your owns ends. You cast contempt on them."

Sadly, Sunstein’s warrant for the discourse is a belief that America is a vapid, intellectual wasteland. The consequences are grave. As Dave Brubeck opines in his "Truth Cantata," "Truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter."

Noam Chomsky asserts that intellectuals possess responsibility. But, Chomsky argues, society’s intellectuals are often subservient to power. Today, that power is a materialistic siren song.

The jobs rationale disrespects the sturdy, robust minds of humanities students and their ability to see truth and use truth as, what scholar Kenneth Burke calls, "equipment for living." As history professor Yuval Noah Harari believes, "If you distort reality too much, it will indeed weaken you by making you act in unrealistic ways."

If dedicated humanities students and professors succumb to the distorted jobs skills ideal, we may suffocate and succumb with the canary.

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Dutch Fichthorn is a retired Lincoln Public Schools teacher and an adjunct professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He lives in Lincoln.

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