10/06/2017 by Michael Brosnan |

Why We Need the Humanities

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Maybe because I was an English major — once surrounded by happy, thoughtful, engaged English majors (and now mostly happy, thoughtful, engaged adults) — I’m regularly surprised by the number of people who want to dismiss the humanities these days, or who see the humanities as, at best, a minor tool for some form of job prep.

In 2014, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 6 percent of college students were English majors, down from 17 percent in 1967. Between 2012 and 2014 alone, the percentage of students in all liberal arts majors dropped by 8.7 percent. The majority of college students today are majoring in business, science, and technology.

The mindset for this shift away from the humanities as a valued course of study was captured recently by Florida Governor Rock Scott, when he said he favors “degrees where people can get jobs.” Scott even went as far as to suggest that students studying liberal arts and social sciences should pay a higher tuition rate because their course of study was in “nonstrategic disciplines.” Echoes of this perspective are widespread. A steady refrain in many supposedly thoughtful articles about education is the “need to prepare students for the global marketplace.”

It’s clear that this effort to undermine the humanities is based in part on political interference. But some of blame for this shift falls on the universities themselves. For one, the rising cost of a college education has many students thinking about the quickest financial return on their investment. At the same time, many colleges and universities are dropping requirements that all students take some humanities courses regardless of major. You might call this consumer-focused education — shifting programs to give students what they want — or what they think they want. Novelist Francine Prose, writing for The Guardian earlier this year, took a number of state colleges and universities to task for dropping humanities majors, purportedly because of costs, while beefing up administrators’ salaries and pouring millions of dollars into marketing campaigns.

In the humanities’ defense, Prose writes, “I don’t believe that the humanities can make you a decent person…. But literature, art and music can focus and expand our sense of what humans can accomplish and create.”

I’m guessing that one of the upcoming generations will wake up frustrated, and perhaps angry, with the school-as-job-prep argument and will want — or at least more of them than now — to study what deeply engages them. They’ll want to be able to write. Really write, not breeze through an obvious, call-and-response essay, but dig deeply into a topic of interest or even write a poem or story or a novel that connects more deeply with their souls than anything they might skim on a handheld device. They’ll want to look for the fruitful intersections of literature and culture and history. They’ll want to be able to analyze and synthesize ideas well across every academic and professional field. They’ll want to develop their critical thinking skills, as well as a deeper, clearer sense of self. They’ll want to know more about the history of philosophy, think about how people have lived across time and how they’ll live in the present. They’ll want to engage in the social sciences as a way to support healthy communities. They’ll want minds that can tackle our more intransigent cultural problems — damaging environmental degradation, obdurate racism, unapologetic wealth inequities, the trappings of consumerism, and so on.

Maybe.

I’m hoping.

A challenge for those of us who want schools and colleges and universities to commit to the humanities is finding a way counteract the money-loud, politicized calls for a narrow view of education. Our storyline needs not only to be clear but also to be shared widely.

In an essay in the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg underscores part of the challenge. It dates back a few years. But, of course, more than a few cultural insights from the recent past are now coming around with serious prescient force:

Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

Among the English majors I know are people leading successful, engaging lives in various fields. A few are novelists or poets. Some are journalists. Some work in communications for various organizations, from college and universities to schools and corporations. A good number are English teachers or college professors. But others have gone on to be corporate CEO’s and CFO’s, investment bankers, high-tech venture capitalists, school principals, nonprofit leaders, artists, lawyers, ministers, and small business owners.

Research will tell you that a degree in the humanities will pay off — relative to other degrees. A report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities notes that “By their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are on average making more money those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates.”

A reason for this from the employer’s perspective, writes Allie Grasgreen for Inside Higher Ed, is that “employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically…  all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.”

A neighbor of mine who is involved in law enforcement said he has met too many undergraduates enrolled in “Criminal Justice” programs who are stuck in narrowly focused job training. He said it’s great that many of them will be police officers, but saddened by what they are not learning in those programs — especially given that our criminal justice system is in need of deep reform these days. My neighbor encourages these students to have double majors — with the second one being in the humanities. What they are missing is an opportunity to delve more deeply into history and literature and language as a way of forming a clearer understanding of the arc of humanity and of forming a sense of self and purpose. What they are missing is that exploration of the human experience as a way to develop greater empathy and purpose. It’s an opportunity, he says, to know themselves and the world better. It will also make them better police officers.

This is what the good colleges and universities never lose sight of. It’s also what I wish all students could experience on some level. What I fear most about the dismissal of the liberal arts is that it means our education system is moving away from the old vision of education for human self-actualization and democratic engagement and more toward education for social control.

In his book, “Excellent Sheep,” former Yale professor and current cultural critic William Deresiewicz writes,

We have constructed an educational system that produces highly intelligent, accomplished twenty-two-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do with their lives; no sense of purpose and, what is worse, no understanding of how to go about finding out. Who can follow an existing path but don’t have the imagination — or the courage, or the inner freedom — to invent their own.

He argues for an affordable liberal arts program that, in essence, help students discover who they are, think intelligently and independently, and develop some kind of moral courage

The attacks on public precollegiate education — the ones that want to connect test scores on standardized tests with “excellence” — feel connected to the college shift away from a liberal arts education. This is particular troubling for two reasons: First, many of those wishing to co-opt the purpose of education aim to take tax money and give it to corporations that will pretend to offer a quality education, but which will really focus on generating revenue for investors. The second is that education will be more indoctrination than self-determination. Good schools set people free. Bad ones control.

It may be too much to say that the anti-humanities movement is part of a cultural battle for the soul of education. But I tend to see it that way.

I’m not really arguing for more humanities majors here. I know that this isn’t the path for all students or even for a majority of students. I also support students studying in the fields of business and STEM. But I am arguing for a course of study that always includes the humanities. Yes, the purpose of education is to help young people develop life skills and learn how to scaffold knowledge, but it’s also about helping them figure out who they are and how they want to live together in our always fragile society. We need them to be free and creative thinkers. To this end, I would remind decision makers of what Steve Jobs once said, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

Looking back on this column, I see that I’ve stepped into that combative mindset once again — the wish to argue for a view of education that I see as under serious threat. But I don’t want to overlook Steve Jobs’s notion of joy. What drove me to be an English major all those years ago? Bill Waterson’s final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip sums it up. The last we see of these two great figures, it’s wintertime. A fresh snow has fallen, and the two are remarking on how the snow makes the world look fresh and new, full of possibility. As they climb aboard their sled at top of a hill, Calvin turns to Hobbes and says, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy. Let’s go exploring.”


Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor, with a particular interest in education and social change. He can be reached at michaelbrosnan5476@gmail.com.

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