Brilliant commentary on how the eroding value our nation places on the humanities is impacting our ability to lead and interact with the world.
On this day in 1938, when Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to avoid a general European war, most of the world hailed it as bringing “peace in our time.” Anti-war public opinion was strongly influenced by bitter memories of World War I and disillusionment with the flawed peace that followed.
Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlin caught the mood nicely, observing, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
But British essayist Harold Nicolson believed that appeasement would guarantee war, not avoid it.
Nicolson wrote “This confirms me in the thought that diplomacy is based upon a knowledge of foreign psychology and that it is owing to the lack of that knowledge... that the government has landed us in war.”
By “psychology” Nicolson meant culture - literature, music, the arts, cuisine, fashion, a society’s manner of living and thinking, everything that determined character and behavior - in other words, the humanities; not simply economics and politics.
Nicolson’s wisdom resonates today. Whether we favor American intervention in the Middle East or not, we’re hampered by a fundamental lack of knowledge of the peoples and cultures with which we deal. Without it, Americans – like the British of the 1930’s – are condemned to set policy wearing cultural blinders. As we’ve learned from recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, such tunnel vision doesn’t serve us well.
Nicolson argued that only thorough grounding in the humanities permitted the cross-cultural understanding necessary for international success. But Americans have never been good about supporting the humanities and Congress now threatens to cut federal humanities funding in half.
This would be a mistake. Thirty years ago, a national commission published a disturbing review of American education called “A Nation At Risk”. The authors concluded, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." As our eroding commitment to the humanities demonstrates, we’ve done little since to address the problem.
At the same time, we glory in American exceptionalism, a concept which carries the implicit assumption that the world understands and accepts us simply because of what and who we are. We’re learning that’s not true. If America is truly to lead others the least we can do is to try to understand them. Endeavoring to see the world as others see it is not weakness but a strength that protects us from folly.
It’s ironic that, as America has assumed a larger role in the wider world, we’ve consistently reduced our attention to the study of the very things that would make that role effective. We are indeed the architects of our own frustration.
New doctoral enrollments in the arts and humanities have been been going up very modestly -- an average of 1 percent annually -- for a decade. But data being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools show that in the fall of 2012, arts and humanities doctoral programs saw a 7.7 percent increase -- a surprising jump given the difficulty many new Ph.D.s in those fields have in finding jobs.
Such an increase could add to the glut of humanities Ph.D.s that has grown as the economic downturn has left so many who have been unable to find tenure-track jobs.
Of the broad disciplinary categories in which the council analyzes data, only public administration and services had a larger percentage increase in new Ph.D. enrollments (7.8 percent), but those are fields in which many new doctorates work in government or consulting. The rate of increase in Ph.D. enrollments for arts and humanities outpaced gains in fields such as engineering, math and computer science and business -- where there is much more demand for new faculty openings and where non-academic jobs abound for Ph.D.s.
The annual report from the graduate council covers master's and doctoral programs across disciplines. The total change in new graduate enrollments was an increase of 1.8 percent, following two years of declines. Graduate enrollment overall was down by 2.3 percent in 2012. But because of the length of graduate programs, new enrollments are the better indicator of what's happening in a given year, so the increase in that category will likely please many college officials.
However, the figures show that the increase is entirely due to gains in international foreign students, and domestic enrollment levels are flat. The role of international students remains particularly crucial in science and technology disciplines.
CFOs must have accounting and finance training to succeed, but undergraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences are what propelled these six executives to the top finance spot.
University liberal-arts degree programs, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, are under fire for allegedly not training students for the jobs that will drive their careers and the economy in the future. To the vast majority of CFOs who have undergraduate degrees in accounting, finance and business, that may seem logical.
But most finance chiefs who chose to focus in college on humanities or social sciences are passionate defenders of the value that educational experience has contributed to their careers. Specifically, they say, it taught them how to bring a multidimensional approach to problem solving, to understand the drivers of people’s behavior, to communicate effectively and to adapt to new and evolving business environments.
CFOs may want to take that into account when evaluating candidates for their team. To be sure, concern has been rising for years over a perceived shortage of young talent well-schooled in business, finance and accounting and ready to make an impact in a corporate job. And indeed, all of the CFOs interviewed for this article say they regularly hire candidates with the more traditional backgrounds and don’t see liberal arts as a “better” breeding ground for future finance executives. Still, they believe equally strongly that a post-graduate degree in business, finance or accounting is sufficient training for entry-level jobs and that their undergraduate experience has contributed much toward making them well-rounded executives.
“Whenever I’m interviewing for a job, they ask how a psychology major became an accountant,” says Marie Epstein, head of finance at Plastiq, a startup credit-card-payment processor. “I say, ‘Isn’t it obvious? Accounting is not just nuts and bolts, numbers and spreadsheets. There’s a tremendous human dimension to everything that goes on in business.’ I’m glad I wasn’t just in debits and credits as an undergrad.”
Variously situated CFOs who have liberal-arts degrees speak out on their formative years, how they wound up in finance, and the role that their undergraduate education plays for them today.
The humanities are not against conventional success; far from it. Many of our students go on to distinguished careers in law and business. But I like to think they do so with a fuller social and self-awareness than most people. For they have approached success as a matter of debate, not as an idol of worship. They have considered the options. They have called “success” into question and, after due consideration, they have decided to pursue it. I have to imagine that such people are far better employees than those who have moved lockstep into their occupations. I also believe that self-aware, questioning people tend to be far more successful in the long run.
What makes humanities students different isn’t their power of expression, their capacity to frame an argument or their ability to do independent work. Yes, these are valuable qualities, and we humanities teachers try to cultivate them. But true humanities students are exceptional because they have been, and are, engaged in the activity that Plato commends — seeking to understand themselves and how they ought to lead their lives.
....What we have, then, is not a story of decline, in the humanities as a whole and at Harvard, but one of large-scale fluctuation with a bubble in the middle.
Schmidt ingeniously pointed out that you can reach more-positive results by asking a better question. Not: What percentage of degrees are in the humanities? But: What proportion of the American population, aged 22 to 26, earn bachelor's degrees in the humanities? It turns out that a larger proportion of the student population is studying the humanities now than did so until the 1960s.
Journalists' immediate conclusions reflect conventional wisdom: The humanities is in a long-term decline that began in the 1970s and has continued ever since. And that is not true. It is a misreading of the data that has established itself as a truth through repetition, and which journalists continue to repeat without examination.
...But the biggest problem in the Harvard report is the absence of what might be the most important recommendation of all. As the case of our prospective military surgeon suggests, plenty of students, at elite and other colleges, study the humanities in the conviction that they can do so and still pursue a wide range of careers. Some of them might even be aware that physicians meeting new patients begin by "taking a history." Our undergraduate majors (and minors) know that this should not mean just soliciting facts and dates. It implies instead a way of thinking about the patient's past. Other students are making different decisions, with different pathways in mind.
What we need to hear—and what the Harvard report doesn't offer us—are their voices. We also need to hear the voices of those whose lives are touched by these humanities majors after college, whether at the workplace or in the community.
What makes some students believe that being humanists will make them better doctors, better lawyers, better advertising experts? What do they find, in their courses, to keep them in departments of English and history and Romance languages? How are we helping them to articulate what they bring to the world beyond the university, so they can tell those stories more effectively? How can we make those stories available to new undergraduates as they decide what to study?
It's not by worrying about the numbers, in the end, that we will find out what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong as teachers. Nor is it by closing our ears (not to mention our minds) to the various communities beyond the academy in which our former students live and work—and in which we live and work.
It's by listening, as humanists do best, to stories, and seeing what the narratives can teach us. Open your ears and—we promise you—you'll hear stories that don't resemble what you read in the media.
Have you heard about the professor of neurology who, as a student, learned to do research by writing a prize-winning senior thesis in history on the death of Captain Cook? No, of course you haven't. But he exists, too, and so do thousands more. They live all over the country, and they work in all sorts of jobs. We need to learn more about what they are doing and how their humanities education has played a continuing role in their lives.
Counting won't get us where we have to go. We need to talk, and even more, we need to listen.
"ChronoZoom is an open source community project dedicated to visualizing the history of everything to bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences using the story of Big History to easily understand all this information. This project has been funded and supported by Microsoft Research Connections in collaboration with University California at Berkeley and Moscow State University.
You can browse through history on ChronoZoom to find data in the form of articles, images, video, sound, and other multimedia. ChronoZoom links a wealth of information from five major regimes that unifies all historical knowledge collectively known as Big History."
An overwhelming amount of information in one location...this will take time to explore!
The Humanities field has been struggling to stay relevant in today's tech-driven economy. There comes a time in every Humanities majors' life where he has to answer the question: "So, what's a Humanities major good for anyway?" Well, there's actually a lot you can do...and make a good living while you're at it.
It all depends on the career path you choose.
There are many lucrative careers that require a degree in the Humanities, like English, political science, sociology, art, anthropology, etc. These classes teach valuable skills like communication, creativity, critical and big-picture thinking--all of which are incredibly valuable in corporate businesses.
So, which careers have the highest payoff for Humanities majors?
To find out the top careers that require an educational background in the Humanities, we dove into our data of tens of thousands of salaries submitted by employees.
"The Arts & Humanities in the Workplace: Why Great Leaders are Joining the Dialogue" is an online project that gives voice to not only humanists, but also employers and leaders from fields as varied as engineering, biology, nanotechnology, social work, business administration, economics, environmental studies, entrepreneurship, physics, government or medicine. The goal of this project is to demonstrate that an education in the arts and humanities -- from kindergarten to higher education and beyond -- has concrete benefits on individual lives and careers and on global economic competitiveness, advancements in innovation, and civic engagement and responsibility.
Please explore the site, read and contribute, add your ideas and impressions to the blog and comment boxes, send material or suggestions, and please forward.
Yes, science and tech are important, but a new report shows that employers prize a more broadly-based education
The question of whether our government should promote science and technology or the liberal arts in higher education is not an either-or proposition, although the current emphasis on preparing young Americans for STEM-related fields can make it seem that way.
I sat on a commission put together by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to explore this very question, and the subsequent congressional report, released today, acknowledges the critical importance of technical training but also asserts without equivocation that the study of the humanities and social sciences must remain central components of America’s educational system at all levels. Both areas are critical to producing citizens who can participate effectively in our democratic society, become innovative leaders and benefit from the spiritual enrichment that the contemplation of ethics, morals, aesthetics and the great ideas over time can provide.
The commission was created in 2011 at the request of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives and in a time of great economic uncertainty and insecurity. Parents and students who have invested heavily in higher education fret about graduates’ job prospects as technological advances and changes in domestic and global markets transform professions in ways that reduce wages and cut jobs. Under these circumstances, it is natural to look for what may appear to be the most “practical” way out of the problem: “Major in a subject designed to get you a job” seems the obvious answer to some, though this ignores the fact that many disciplines in the humanities characterized as “soft” often, in fact, lead to employment and success in the long run. Indeed, according to surveys, employers have expressed a preference for students who have received a broadly based education that has taught them to write well, think critically, research creatively and communicate easily.
Moreover, students should be prepared not just for their first job but for their fourth and fifth jobs, as there is little reason to doubt that people entering the workforce today will be called upon to play many different roles over the course of their careers. The ones who will do best in this new environment will be those whose educations have prepared them to be flexible. Those with the ability to draw upon every available tool and insight — gleaned from science, arts and technology — to solve the problems of the future and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves will stand themselves and the U.S. in good stead.
In May 1780, while away in France, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail expressing his hopes for the progress of the American experiment. “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My Sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce andAgriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Granted, there were poets and musicians in America in his time, but what Adams was really expressing was “the truth that a country must have a sufficient level of wealth, stability and security before large numbers of its citizens can engage in pursuits broader than the basic struggle for survival that war and politics — the substitute for war — address.” Despite our economic woes, the U.S. is a wealthy nation. We have the capacity to create and maintain an educational system that trains students in science, math, history, art and other disciplines, at the very highest level. Will we continue to fulfill the worthy vision for the nation that Adams set forth?
Op-Ed by Christopher Sommerich, Executive Director of Humanities Nebraska
When Socrates stated that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” more than 2,000 years ago, the global population was somewhere around 150 million people.
In today’s chaotic, technology-driven world of 7 billion people and climbing, where we have the capacity to destroy ourselves slowly or quickly and in multiple ways, Socrates’ contemplation of who we are as individuals or a species seems essential rather than a luxury.
The complex challenges of our time should demand that we embrace the humanities — the study of history, literature, culture, philosophy, religion, language and so on — in order to grapple with those challenges from many angles and to envision the best path forward.
However, “The Heart of the Matter,” a national report just released by the Commission on Humanities and Social Sciences, finds an alarming trend of simultaneous increasing needs and decreasing funding of the humanities, with “grave, long-term consequences for the nation.”
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences assembled a commission of 54 highly visible citizens from a cross-section of American public life to foster national dialogue on the importance of the humanities and social sciences to the future of our country.
In this report, the commission identified three important goals for advancing the humanities in America as “the keeper of the republic — a source of national memory and civic vigor; cultural understanding and communication; individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.”
First, because the humanities provide critical context for understanding and thriving in a rapidly changing world, we need to equip Americans with the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to flourish in a 21st-century democracy. And we need to make that available through public-private partnerships and strong networks of schools, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions.
J.B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska, remarked to me recently that he is “convinced that we need to be thinking less about the relative value of STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] versus humanities and more about a well-rounded education that includes humanities, social sciences, art, engineering, science and math. English and art majors should have an understanding of science and technology, and engineers should experience great art and literature.”
Second, the report states that we need to foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong. This requires adaptability, investment in humanities-related research, strengthening curriculum guidelines and support of humanities-related teachers.
Third, we need to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. We will better compete in a global economy by using the humanities to nurture understanding of different cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives. This includes language learning, education in international affairs, study-abroad programs and development of a “culture corps” for communities and states to work with cultural institutions to transmit humanities expertise from one generation to the next.
In her recent Time magazine essay on “The Heart of the Matter,” commission member and historian Annette Gordon-Reed (who will speak in Omaha on Oct. 30 for the Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities) quoted a letter from patriot John Adams to his wife Abigail. In the letter, he explains that he needed to study politics and war so that his sons could study philosophy, commerce, history and agriculture, and that his sons needed to study those subjects so that his grandchildren could study poetry, music, architecture and other arts.
“What Adams was really expressing,” Gordon-Reed noted, was “the truth that a country must have a sufficient level of wealth, stability and security before large numbers of its citizens can engage in pursuits broader than the basic struggle for survival that war and politics — the substitute for war — address.”
As the evening concluded during the Humanities Nebraska Chautauqua in Papillion recently, one of the audience members asked the scholars portraying Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong century?” The scholar who had just presented Ms. Wilder aptly stated, “I enjoy studying the past, but I am hopeful for the future.”
To meet that hope, we need the humanities now, more than ever.
Toronto, 14th March 1951 (from Marshall McLuhan - Complete Correspondence, edited by Matie Molinaro & Corinne McLuhan) (This 1951 letter from McLuhan to Innis plants a very early Digital Humanities seed:: http://t.co/IQikxbguCt)...
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice David H. Souter says the humanities are "getting the short end of the stick" — and called on citizens to rally and battle to restore them.
In a rare appearance in Albany on Thursday, the 1990 appointee of President George H.W. Bush to the nation's highest court expressed his views on law, politics and read poetry while addressing an estimated 325 listeners in Clark Auditorium at the State Museum.
"We are not asking for favors," Souter said. "We are arguing for the survival of the United States as we know it."
Souter, 73, of New Hampshire, a Republican judge who became one of the top court's more liberal members before retiring in 2009, pulled few punches while delivering his thoughts on a new report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences' Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, of which Souter is a member.
In a recent six-year period, Souter said, the federal share of funding for humanities research dropped by one-third. And he said funding for social sciences is under attack.
Humanities range from history to literature to law to theater, language and philosophy. The report Souter highlighted found that reading for pleasure declined 11 percent between 1992 and 2008 — and that less than 30 percent of high school seniors are proficient in writing, history and civics.
"The humanities and social sciences, in effect, should tell us who we have been, who we have come from, who we are and who we may be," Souter said. "I'm assuming that probably everyone in this room understands that if the humanities and the social sciences are, in fact, going to be revived to the level of support that their significance deserves, we are the troops that are going to have to fight the battle ... no one else is going to do it."
The Harvard-educated Souter said the public would need to persuade various powers-that-be of the importance of the importance of humanities. He said forums such as Thursday's are like "training camps" for people who want to revive the humanities.
"For the sake of the spirit of liberty, humane learning, humane teaching in the United States must not get short shrifted," Souter said to end his nearly one-hour speech, to applause.
The vast majority of humanities graduates are happy with their choice of degree, says the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
More undergraduates majored in the humanities in 2011 than did so a decade ago, but federal support for research in those disciplines accounted for less than one-half of 1 percent of the money given to colleges for science and engineering.
Those two data points appear in a new "report card" on the humanitiesthat was released on Tuesday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in an effort to keep the topic of the humanities in the public eye.
While worrying about the state of the humanities is a perennial topic, it has attracted renewed attention after recent reports by the academy and byHarvard University, said John E. Tessitore, director of programming for the academy, which is based in Cambridge, Mass.
"There's been a steady conversation going on about the place of the humanities in American life," Mr. Tessitore said. "This was an attempt to capitalize on that."
The report card does not contain new data. It gathers information from the 233-year-old academy's continuing compilation of statistics, which it calls the humanities indicators, and highlights some bright spots in what is often described in gloomy terms.
For example, about four million people worked in humanities-related jobs, like museum curator or humanities teacher, from 2007 to 2009. More than 115,000 students earned baccalaureate degrees in the humanities in 2011, a 20-percent increase in absolute terms over a decade earlier. And 84 percent of students who earned bachelor's degrees in the humanities said they were satisfied with their choice of major one year after graduation.
There is still plenty of gloom, too. The share of all bachelor's degrees conferred in the humanities continues to be fairly small, at about 11 percent, though that has been the case for decades. And humanities research receives 0.48 percent of what the federal research budget gives to higher education for science and engineering.
The report card also shares some tidbits that are neither good nor bad but interesting: 19 percent of the members of Congress majored in the humanities as undergraduates, a share exceeded by the 26 percent who earned degrees in vocational fields and the 37 percent in the social sciences. The least frequent major was "the sciences," at 8 percent.
While such data add nuance to the discussion of the role of the humanities, it will probably not answer larger questions about the relevance and more-lasting results of earning a degree in those subjects, said Robert B. Townsend, director of the academy's Washington office.
"You'd love to have more data on how majors affect somebody's long-term career or their voting patterns," he said, "but such things haven't been quantified."
What can we do to make the case for the humanities? Unlike the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), they do not—on the surface—contribute to the national defense. It is difficult to measure, precisely, their effect on the GDP, or our employment rates, or the stock market.
And yet, we know in our bones that secular humanism is one of the greatest sources of strength we possess as a nation, and that we must protect the humanities if we are to retain that strength in the century ahead.
I do not exactly hail from the center of the humanities. I’m an economist, with a specialization in health and economic development. When you ask economists to weigh in on an issue, the chances are good that we will ultimately get around to a basic question: “Is it worth it?” Support for the humanities is more than worth it. It is essential.
We all know that there has been a fair amount of hostility to this idea recently in Congress and in State Houses around the country. Sometimes it almost feels as if there is a National Alliance against the Humanities. There are frequent potshots by radio commentators, and calls to reduce government spending in education and scholarship in the humanities.
It has become fashionable to attack government for being out of touch, bloated, and elitist; and humanities funding often strikes critics as an especially muddle-headed form of government spending. For that reason, the humanities are in danger of becoming even more of a punching bag than they already are.
In the current economic environment, these attacks have the potential to sway people. Any expenditure has to be clearly worth it. “Performance funding” links government support to disciplines that provide high numbers of jobs. Or, as in a Florida proposal that emerged last year, a “strategic” tuition structure would essentially charge more money to students who want to study the humanities and less money for those going into the STEM disciplines.
As a result, there is grave cause for concern. Federal support for the humanities is heading in the wrong direction. In fiscal year 2013, the National Endowment for the Humanities was funded at $139 million, down $28.5 million from FY 2010, at a time when science funding stayed mostly intact. This is part of a pattern of long-term decline since the Reagan years.
Ibelieve the question is fair. Are the humanities worth it? To push back against the recent tide of criticism, I’d like to offer several strategies....
Despite constant advice to focus on hard sciences or engineering, there are still many good reasons to major in liberal arts.
If you look at a chart of post-graduate salaries, the liberal arts don't look very appealing. But that doesn't tell the whole story.
If you study and set out to find a job in a narrow academic area, you're going to have a hard time. But if you're smart about it and do something like what Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell suggests and supplement the major with in-demand skills, you're a member of an "endangered species" who can think and write well, and for whom there's a surprising amount of demand.
That demand is well warranted, so here's 10 reasons why you should ignore the haters and major in liberal arts.
For those of you who have already graduated, it's never too late to hit the books again. Here are 11 reasons:
Liberal Arts And Humanities Education Who Is Right Bill Gates Or The Late Steve Jobs by Vivek Wadhwa and other Articles Contributed by Indians (India) Community in seattle Area, seattle Indian (India)...
"Over the past year, I have interviewed the founders of more than 200 Silicon Valley start-ups. The most common traits I have observed are a passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and succeed."
My seven year old son and I have been playing on the Gamestar Mechanic website all week. We’re learning the principles of game design. We’re making our own video games. Most importantly, we’re playing together.
A new survey of 2,600 donors in their 20s and early 30s found that 60 percent want a nonprofit's online presence to give more details about the people it serves.
Organizations that want to persuade people in their 20s and early 30s to give and volunteer don’t have much of a chance if they’re not updating their Web sites frequently and including compelling details about their causes and the people they serve, a new survey finds.
Three out of four donors born from 1979 to 1994—a generation often referred to as “millennials”—said they were turned off when a nonprofit’s Web site had not been updated recently. Six in 10 said they wanted nonprofits to share stories about successful projects and programs and appreciated information about an organization’s cause and the people it serves.
What especially bothers them: Too much information about the group itself, said Derrick Feldmann, chief executive of Achieve, a consulting company that advises nonprofits on how to work with young donors.
The company conducted the survey of 2,600 young donors to learn about their attitudes. Then, to find out what matters most to these givers, the company asked 100 of them to view and rate charity Web sites.
Monthly Giving Appeals
Most of the young people surveyed had given only small amounts to nonprofits—23 percent said their largest gift was $51 to $100, while another 40 percent said their largest donation was $1 to $50.
But young donors are open to making small donations more frequently: About 52 percent said they would be interested in making monthly gifts to an organization. Another 70 percent said they would be willing to raise money for an organization they cared about, and 64 percent said they had raised money in a fundraising walk or race.
“It’s probably the most common philanthropic experience millennials have,” says Mr. Feldmann.
The donors also prefer to give online, with 84 percent saying they want to give through a Web site. The second most-popular way to give, with only 48 percent of donors, was to make a donation in person at an event.
To help nonprofits learn more about how young donors view their sites, Achieve’s researchers videotaped young people as they viewed nonprofit Web sites and were asked whether the sites motivated them to give and volunteer.
In the videos, many of the participants called attention to Web sites that failed to provide enough information about the organization and its results. (See highlights from the videos below)
What’s the point of the humanities? Of studying philosophy, history, literature and “soft” sciences like psychology and poly sci? The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, consisting of academic, corporate, political and entertainment big shots, tries to answer this question in a big new report to Congress. The report is intended to counter plunging enrollment in and support for the humanities, which are increasingly viewed as “luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford,” as The New York Times put it.
Titled “The Heart of the Matter,” the report states: “As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common. They are critical to a democratic society and they require our support.”
I find this a bit grandiose, and obscure. I have my own humble defense of the humanities, which I came up with a couple of years ago, when I started teaching a new course required for all freshmen at Stevens Institute of Technology. The syllabus includes Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Keynes, Eliot—you know, Greatest Hits of Western Civilization.
I love teaching the class, but I don’t assume that students love taking it. So on the first day of class I ask my wary-looking students, “How many of you would skip this class if it wasn’t required?” After I assure them that they won’t hurt my feelings, almost all raise their hands.
When I ask what the problem is, they say they came to Stevens for engineering, computer science, physics, pre-med, finance, digital music production, etc. They don’t see the point of reading all this old impractical stuff that has nothing to do with their careers. When I ask them to guess why Stevens inflicts this course on them, someone usually says, smirking, To make us well-rounded.
Whenever I get the “well-rounded” response, I want to reply, “Does ‘well-rounded’ mean, like, chubby?” But I don’t want to offend overweight students. Instead I say, “I don’t really know what ‘well-rounded’ means. Does it mean being able chitchat about Shakespeare at cocktail parties? I don’t care about that.” Then I give them my pitch for the course, which goes something like this:
We live in a world increasingly dominated by science. And that’s fine. I became a science writer because I think science is the most exciting, dynamic, consequentialpart of human culture, and I wanted to be a part of that. Also, I have two college-age kids, and I’d be thrilled if they pursued careers in science, engineering or medicine. I certainly want them to learn as much science and math as they can, because those skills can help you get a great job.
But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.
The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.
But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.
The humanities are more about questions than answers, and we’re going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions in this class. Like, What is truth anyway? How do we know something is true? Or rather, why do we believe certain things are true and other things aren’t? Also, how do we decide whether something is wrong or right to do, for us personally or for society as a whole?
Also, what is the meaning of life? What is the point of life? Should happiness be our goal? Well, what the hell is happiness? And should happiness be an end in itself or just a side effect of some other more important goal? Like gaining knowledge, or reducing suffering?
Each of you has to find your own answer to these questions. Socrates, one of the philosophers we’re going to read, said wisdom means knowing how little you know. Socrates was a pompous ass, but there is wisdom in what he says about wisdom.
If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.
Postscript: My Stevens colleague Garry Dobbins, a philosopher, likes to give me a hard time, and I him, but I’m always provoked by his take on things, like this response to my post: “As to the Humanities being to teach us a healthy skepticism, we might all agree that this is indeed one of the consequences of such an education; but if this is necessary, as you make it out, because learning science alone we do not learn the importance, or necessity of ‘uncertainty, doubt and skepticism,’ something strange and even perverse has befallen the study of science! Those taking seriously the study of the history of science, for instance, will know that there was a time when science assumed the cultural pre-eminence it still occupies among us precisely because it did not teach dogmas, or as you put it, ‘certainty.’ On the contrary; scientific studies from the early modern period down to the early twentieth century, anyway, were liberal studies. Surely the justification of study of the Humanities, history, literature, philosophy and the rest, is not fundamentally different than the justification for the study of science. There are forces at work in human life, whether material or spiritual, which we seek to master, so far as possible. The language in which we express our knowledge of physical forces obeys somewhat different logical rules to that in which we express our knowledge of economics for example: but this doesn’t mean that the one is less knowledge, or logical, or important, than the other, surely! That you speak of the kind of knowledge to be gained by close study of Shakespeare, Thucydides, or Plato, as ‘impractical’ surely goes to show a misunderstanding as to what is practical in a human life. Unless you can show good reason to believe Socrates mistaken in thinking that self-knowledge is only reliable foundation for a good life.”
I responded: “Garry, you’re right that science if properly taught should incorporate skepticism. But science is becomingly increasingly dogmatic and arrogant in our era, which is why we need the humanities to foster a healthy anti-dogmatism.”
The University College London (UCL) Centre for Digital Humanities–in collaboration with 4Humanities–has created a new The Humanities Matter! infographic with statistics and arguments for the humanities in high-impact visual form.
Countering clichéd, factually ungrounded criticisms, The Humanities Matter! draws on published statistics and a crowdsourced poll to give a shout out to the humanities in sections on “What the Humanities Do,” “But the Evidence Shows,” and “Culture is Important.”
The digital version of The Humanities Matter! is a large, vertical-format banner available as a PDF file. A limited number of printed posters made from the infographic is being mailed to newspapers and magazines, national councils and commissions, public and private funding agencies, humanities centres and programs, and digital-humanities associations and programs around the world.
Walt Whitman counseled each of us to “dismiss whatever insults your soul.” My fervent hope is that the new Commission on the Humanities and Social Science report—a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that was “commissioned” or “requested” by a quartet of DC pols—will be dismissed accordingly.
Thought-provoking post on the value of humanities as compared to how they are positioned in the report from the commission
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