21st Century Humanists

Jan 31, 2012 by

Bacon observed at the end of the 16th century that “studies serve for delight, for ornament and for ability” (Bacon 204). This observation holds true in the 21st century and is reflected in an increasing number of Americans obtaining graduate degrees. Most of these degrees are awarded to people returning to school after several years working in their field and the goal is typically a highly specialized certification pertaining to their occupation. Certainly this is part of what Bacon meant when he referred to “ability,” and these degrees are helping workers earn more and be promoted higher.

However, much of this type of education is better classified as training than education. Bacon argues that the wise man is educated but not necessarily trained. This classically liberal education leads the student into thinking for themselves. Training prepares them to do a task, or perform it with greater efficiency. “Studies,” Bacon argues “…teach not their own use; but there is wisdom without them and above them…” (Bacon 205). That is to say the wise man uses education to transcend what he has been taught not merely to apply it.

In an increasingly unstable economy one is better equipped to adjust to occupational changes, quicker to learn new trades, more nimble in the acquisition of new skills with a liberal education. This is truer of a liberal humanities based education than one which has taught one how to think such as a narrower M.B.A or a degree in implementing educational technologies.

In the 15th century Pico Della Mirandola argued that man occupied a special middle place in the universe. God he asserted had made humans “a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immoral, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer (Mirandola 7). This is still in the 21st century the existential position we find ourselves.

Understanding our own human nature and the place we occupy in the Universe is of paramount importance in our ability to freely choose the shape of our destiny. The liberal education frees and widens the mind; where as the technical education focuses it. Mirandola urges us to study the “Delphic precepts,” that is the inscriptions above the doors of Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Perhaps the greatest of these is “Know thyself.” This he argues “invites and exhorts us to the study of the whole nature of which the nature of man is the connecting link…for he who knows himself knows all things in himself…” Mirandola 28). It is this self knowledge that gives us the opportunity to make of ourselves what we choose. We are not made to labor as an end to itself. Our work is a means to something higher, something finer. The realization of what this human telos is can only be achieved through a liberal education grounded in the humanities.

Mirandola argues humans can only understand themselves as that “connecting link,” through the liberal arts,. It is the study of history, philosophy, literature and rhetoric, as well as natural philosophy that helps humans tease out their innate capacity for reason and creativity and helps them be better teachers, lawyers and mechanics. Moreover, if one understands oneself, one is infinitely more capable to handle the more mundane tasks of the work force. The liberally educated through the study of philosophy, history and logic are more apt to understand the broader picture of a task, even if it is only assembly line work. They are more likely to be the creative drivers of innovation within their field and they are more able to rebound from occupational changes. A humanities based education may be more necessary in the 21st century than ever before if human progress is to continue.


Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. Bacon’s Essays. London: Macmillan and, 1885. Print.

Della Mirandola, Giovanni Pico. Oration on the Dignity of Man. Chicago: Gateway, 1956. Print.


1 Comment

  1. The End is Near

    Where can one get such an education?

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