One of the up-and-coming New Testament scholars in the United States was asked in a Facebook profile to name the most influential mentor or teacher he encountered.

The name he gave was Luke Timothy Johnson, one of the more prolific scholars on early Christianity.

One of the most important lessons learned from Johnson is that he is a man of wide reading and consciously nurtured engagement with other areas of literature beyond his professional interests.

His student mentioned especially his immersion in poetry and novels.

That resonates with me at the moment. The humanities in general are undervalued by almost all the leading criteria in higher education.

History, languages, literature, art, music are all very well, but what contribution would graduates in these subjects make to overall employability? Or how would they advance our technological prowess?

How do they compare with science, engineering and business management in making our country better prepared to compete in the global marketplace?

These questions are not irrelevant. Employability, advances in science and technology, and being competitive in the global market are important criteria when deciding how to allocate public funding to universities.

But life is about more than work. Human wisdom and knowledge reach beyond science, technology and business.

Competing globally in the marketplace will not of itself make for the good life, the common good or the furtherance and deepening of human culture, communication and symbiotic exchanges of ideas and life perspectives.

For that, we need fertilized imagination, creative expression, intellectual agility, verbal facility and, in all of this, a deepening of human curiosity about what all this other activity and productivity is for.

The humanities are at least one bulwark against the bulldozer of utilitarian ruthlessness that measures every idea and artefact by its material benefit, its economic return and by how far it increases our sense of security through possession.

To go back to where I started: A New Testament professor revels in poetry and in varieties of fiction and in books exposing the world’s brokenness and exploring the world’s goodness.

That suggests a mind that maintains high levels of active curiosity about the world, human behavior and that inner world of the personal with which we are all more or less familiar.

In other words, attending to the humanities helps to replenish the storehouses of imagination, empathy, wisdom and, yes, humility. And each of these sustains our own humanity and makes for personal flourishing.

Human beings are not machines; human life does not flourish through restrictive systems, however efficient.

Our everyday human experience cannot merely be managed, by ourselves or by governments, as if we ever could control all contingencies and outcomes.

A human life well lived is one that enriches humanity – our own and others. That takes more than level of income, possessions, work status and ability to feed the machinery of an economy.

The cultural loam out of which the rich fruits of humanity emerge is made up of diverse essential ingredients. Yes, that includes science, technology, engineering, business and trade, management and strategic development of earth’s resources.

However, there is also the work of developing who we are, and who we are is collectively humanity, and individually human beings. And one way or another, we have to get along with each other on this planet.

So. What develops our humanity? What indeed defines a human life well lived?

Are we primarily economic productivity units, fitted to purpose in the economic machine? Are we primarily competing societies committed to maximizing possession of wealth, goods and power?

Are we intelligent creatures to be trained toward employability or persons to be educated? And in what specific sense are these two last options different?

Because lurking behind the demise of the humanities, and their falling capital in university curricula, is a now contested view of what it means to educate a person.

Yes, as we grow and develop our potential, it will be essential to prepare for employment. However, is education as an end in itself still a thing?

As education becomes more specialized in school, college and university and on into employment, at what point does education morph into training, skill-set development and life goal aspiration focused on the material outcomes to be expected from that knowledge, skill set and training?

The place of the humanities in our earliest and middle years of education remains an essential of growing up.

But what about schools now cutting out music tuition, art classes and the slow erosion of even English as an essential prerequisite, not only for the job market, but as a key that unlocks so much else that nourishes us toward full humanity?

It is the humanities that give us our best clues to self-understanding. It is story, poem, song and painting that guide us into some of our deepest emotions and through some of our most profound and life-changing experiences.

What am I trying to say, and why do I feel the need to say this?

Once again in Scotland, we are hearing of education authorities cutting back on creative arts, depriving our children and young adults of so much potential enrichment of life now and later.

Then there is the absence in recent social and political debate of a shared agreement on the importance of history and historical perspective; added to this, a felt, and at times frightening, absence of agreed values as to what kind of society and culture we want.

The most penetrating critiques of what is going wrong in human culture are often found in the writings of the poets, the novelists, the screenplay writers, the musicians, that is, those whose workplace is the human soul, the human mind, the human conscience, and whose remit is to expose untruth and compel reflection.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Gordon’s blog, Living Wittily. It is used with permission.

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