Report affirms humanities’ value

June 24, 2013

On the Saturday morning NPR yuck-fest “Car Talk,” Tom and Ray Magliozzi make frequent jokes about art history majors and the utility – or lack thereof – of a degree in that subject.

Lately, some lawmakers and influential thinkers have been taking those wisecracks to heart. They’ve been pounding the drums for our colleges and universities to pump out more scientists, more engineers and more high-tech workers, with the implicit message that other endeavors, such as studying history, literature, philosophy and, yes, art history, are somehow lesser preoccupations. They do little or nothing to boost our economic competitiveness, the assumption goes.

Legislators in Florida have even considered instituting differential tuition, where students majoring in areas that are deemed to have less value to employers have to pay more for their degrees. There’s nothing implicit about that message. It’s as loud and clear as an unabridged, hardcover copy of “Don Quixote” landing on your nightstand – go near those English professors at your peril!

Last week, however, advocates for the humanities responded to the naysayers with a study of their own, saying that a broad-based education and the ability to think analytically and critically, develop ideas and grasp other cultures is just as important to our economic and social prospects as a horde of system administrators or biomedical engineers.

Conducted under the aegis of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the report points out that “At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion, we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be.”

The proponents of a greater emphasis on math and science in higher education have argued that students need to be able to find jobs in a still-tough employment market and, what’s more, they need to be able to find lucrative jobs in order to pay off their student loans and gain a foothold in the middle class. In a discussion of the possibility of differential tuition, Florida Gov. Rick Scott exclaimed, “Is it a vital interest to the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

We suspect there’s also a strain of anti-intellectualism and political animus in the belief that math and science should go atop the academic pyramid – colleges and universities should emphasize training and utilitarian value, they say, not graduate scholars versed in Marxist perspectives on “The Simpsons.”

But Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke University and a member of the panel that compiled the report, effectively spoke up for the value of the liberal arts in an interview on the “PBS NewsHour,” pointing out that “We need to remind the world that what makes a person successful are not thing things that get you a job the day you graduate. I know almost no one at 40 or 50 who is doing the thing they did the day they got out of college. And when people end up being able to lead successful and creative lives, it is typically because they had a very broad range of skills that they were able to use in versatile and opportunistic ways as life unfolded.”

Sure, calculus, quantum engineering or environmental technology are essential to explore for those who have an aptitude in those areas. But we shouldn’t neglect the humanities along the way. It’s not time yet to consign Socrates, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven or Picasso to the ash heap of history.



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