05/09/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Humanities: How WWI Settled an Earlier Argument About the Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Is the traditional, liberal arts college degree impractical and outdated? Are the humanities still relevant?

We have had this debate before, and the fact that it has resurfaced now is not only a result of the unsustainable increases in the cost of higher education. Periods of rapid technological and social change invariably lead to a questioning of established practices and values.

A hundred years ago, there was also speculation that the liberal arts would go the way of the horse and carriage. The country was adjusting to developments at least as life-altering as those brought about by the current computing and communications revolution. By 1914, most of the technologies that defined the 20th century and continue to define the 21st -- the automobile, refrigeration, electric light, radio, telephone and movies among them -- were already established and profoundly reshaping American society.

Then as now, some believed that higher education should emphasize the technical rather than the humanistic, production over contemplation, and job training in lieu of life training.

The captains of industry, the dotcom billionaires of their day, generally threw their support to science and engineering. In 1901, J.D. Rockefeller founded a university entirely devoted to biomedical sciences. In 1905, Andrew Mellon, on his way to becoming the third highest taxpayer in the country, behind only Rockefeller and Henry Ford, founded the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research. Andrew Carnegie followed with his own Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1913. Ford said at the time, "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition, we want to live in the present." It was clear where he stood.

The Great War (1914-1918) put the destructive potential of 20th century industrial society on full display. Several months into the conflict, Sigmund Freud wrote of the shock of seeing the most technologically advanced civilizations in the world abandon "all individual moral acquisitions" and give themselves over to "the most primitive, the oldest, the crudest mental attitudes."

The lessons of World War I are still relevant.

First, the ancient Greeks, who conceived of the artes liberales, and the Romans who expanded on them, saw these studies as essential to the training of virtuous citizens, ones who could participate actively and constructively in their own governance. The extraordinary scientific and technological innovations of the early twentieth century only increased the need for a culturally literate populace. (Fittingly, the institutes established by Carnegie and Mellon merged in 1965 and outstanding programs in the arts and humanities were added to form Carnegie Mellon University.)

Second, the humanities provided critically important opportunities to contemplate the "ultimates." Why are we here? Where did we come from? What happens when we die? And what kind of a legacy will we choose to leave?

Our current obsession with the creativity of youth, embodied in the phenomenon of the twenty-something Silicon Valley CEO, echoes Ford's rejection of our collective cultural heritage and of the generally older members of the society who care for and preserve it. But a liberal arts education is preparation for the future, one in which we will all find ourselves a part of the past.

If Google's engineers reach their goal of organizing the world's information, we will need plenty of greying liberal arts degree holders around to help us decide what to do with it.