Can Johnny Write Good?: The Importance of Humanities & Social Sciences

The humanities and social sciences teach us to question, analyze, debate, evaluate, interpret, synthesize, compare evidence, and communicate—skills that are critically important in shaping adults who can become independent thinkers.

—from The Heart of the Matter, a 2013 Report of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

As you might expect, the folks here at Jones McClure like to write and love to read.  An impromptu survey around the office revealed—unsurprisingly—that almost everyone in the editorial and production departments holds an undergraduate liberal arts degree.  You know, those degrees about which our parents despaired, “But how will you get a job?”   (Answer:  Like a lot of you, we didn’t know.)

As attorneys, copyeditors, and meticulous proofreaders, we know how critical the placement of a single comma in a sentence or a piece of legislation can be.  We have seen lawyers (and, ahem, sitting presidents) argue over the intended meaning of seemingly simple two-letter words.  We appreciate the clarity, beauty, and simplicity of a well-written opinion, and we pull our hair out when we read poorly crafted and imprecise decisions.

In his recent op-ed in the New York Times Sunday Review, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes (beautifully) about a new report   by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  The report indicates that the number of students studying a curriculum based on the humanities and social sciences[1] is on the decline in the United States, and its authors[2] argue that “our need for a broadly literate population is more urgent than ever.”

This is Klinkenborg’s take on the situation:

Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure—from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large—to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.

In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the AmericanAcademy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. At Pomona College … this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number.  …   At Pomona this year, [the two top majors] were economics and mathematics.[3]

What many undergraduates do not know … is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it—no matter how or when it was acquired—knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

We couldn’t have written it better.


[1] Including languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, the arts, anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology.

[2] A broadly diverse group, including notables and scholars such as Yo Yo Ma, George Lucas, and Justice David Souter.

[3] Not that we are bashing the math folks.  Thank goodness the Jones McClure IT department is full of brilliant computer science-y people.