The Enduring Power of the Humanities

03/02/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Adapted from a speech given at Union College's Founders Day 2015 celebration.

I've been invited to speak about the "Enduring Power of the Humanities," and while I believe in the topic (with a double major in English and humanities I better) the humanities really best speak for themselves. Yet the humanities have increasingly found themselves under attack. Critics are applauding their extinction and characterizing them in these post-2008 recessionary times as a luxury, disconnected from core curriculum. According to the Huffington Post, since the late 1960s, the proportion of four-year college students majoring in the humanities has dropped over 50 percent. Today, only eight percent of students in the US pursue a degree in the humanities.

My role might be to remind you that the humanities are organically as much a part of who you are as the Mississippi is central to this continent. That's how I think of the humanities -- like the deep and nourishing waters of the Mississippi to the delta.

Let me offer an analogy -- we humanities folk like analogies. On my way here yesterday, starting from the Los Angeles, flying to Chicago, and then to Albany was, and this is the highest praise you can give about travel these days, uneventful. Now there are those of us of a particular generation who recall the time when flying was an exciting proposition. I was 12 when I went on my first plane flight and recall that there was a lounge on the 747 where a man played a snappy Neil Diamond medley on the piano just as we broke through the clouds into a robin's egg blue sky.

Flash forward a few decades, and you can find me on my broken economy window seat with a disgruntled person sitting in front of me fully reclined. There's no piano bar, no film, no Wi-Fi, no music, no magazines. It struck me that flying in a beige and white steel tube with nothing to occupy my time might be a reasonable analogy for what existence might be like devoid of the humanities. You'd live, but the experience would be decidedly lacking.

Do I need to explain how deadening and joyless it is to ride in that cylindrical tube? Do we really need to explain why poetry, art, philosophy and theater matter? Really, at what point did we have to start defending the value of knowing ourselves? Of human complexity? Of analysis? Of communication? Of meaning?

The sciences and the humanities have always been intertwined and one cannot prosper without the other. My favorite Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is properly recognized as the originator of the scientific study of life or, as we know it, biology; but he was also our first philosopher of art and theater. My guess is that Aristotle would be troubled by the way we have siloed our ways of knowing. We are now arguably the most "connected" generation in the entirety of human existence. We email while scuba diving, make satellite calls from Mount Everest, tweet while dining and text all the time, while doing everything.

I was on a radio program a few years ago when the moderator asked me if we really need philosophy majors anymore. My response was, maybe you should ask Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, Susan Sontag, Albert Schweitzer and the 14th Dalai Lama -- all philosophy majors. My English major trained me to think critically and prepared me to develop the portfolio of skills that I practice as president: negotiating a $30 million dollar construction contract; stretching the institutional budget to create improved benefits and healthcare; convincing the college community to engage in tactical planning; becoming expert in governance and practiced in Robert's Rules of Order; and refinancing bonds for better interest rates.

In our modern time, as the number of medical emergencies aboard airlines continues to soar (yes, we are back to my earlier plane flight analogy) the government is considering changing the way cabins are pressurized to provide more oxygen to passengers. I think about the humanities' importance to society in the same way. If we continue trending in this way, a little less art, less music, less history, fewer libraries, just like reduced oxygen we will slowly deplete ourselves and die.

Yet I can't end on that note. After all the humanities endure, just like us humans. More than ever we seek ways to feel connected to one another, and in the end it doesn't matter if it's the beauty of Strauss' flowing An der schönen blauen Donau, or Auden's incomparable Lullaby, or our poet-bard, Kanye West's love song to Kim, "Bound to fall in love (uh-huh honey)"; these are all expressions and interpretations of life and they tie us to those who came before as well as to our contemporaries.