Columns

Taking Sides: Are the humanities in danger?

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Opinions Columnists

Jared Moffat ’13: Yes

In 2012, a mere 16 percent of Brown’s incoming class reported it intended to concentrate in the humanities, two percent less than the class of 2014 two years prior. The same trend is clear in our recent national history: Since the late 1960s, the proportion of four-year college students focusing in the humanities has dropped more than 50 percent. Today, only 8 percent of college students in the United States pursue a degree in the humanities.

Because of budget cuts, administrators in many state colleges are feeling pressured to cut back on the humanities. Research money for graduates is drying up, and in 2010, University at Albany even went so far as to eliminate its French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater programs altogether.

Many critics are cheering on the extinction of the humanities. They often say these disciplines are really just pointless luxuries that serve no economic purpose. During hard times, they argue, when budgets are tight and we need young people to be trained for the best jobs, we can’t bother with things like medieval history or feminist literary theory.

In a way, the critics have a point. Those who study the humanities do not generate much economic output or create new technologies, nor do they intend to. Scholars in the humanities are essentially a subsidized club of nerds.

But the anti-humanities sentiment one frequently sees on Fox News, for example, fails to appreciate the hugely important task this club of nerds has, which is to preserve, extend and create culture. Indeed our wisdom, our traditions and our spirituality are not commodities, which is precisely why these things must be proactively cultivated, maintained and, yes, even subsidized.

It’s reasonable perhaps to squabble about the specific budget for the music department at this or that college, but to attack the very existence of the humanities, as many right-wing anti-intellectualists are doing, is simply trolling.

The humanities are in danger because the values that underpin them are being attacked by the right for base political reasons. Just like the alleged “moocher class,” the humanities are being demonized as the cause, rather than a victim, of our nation’s economic woes.

Despite the fact that employers consistently say they seek the kind of critical and creative thinking that a degree in philosophy or English can provide — and not to mention that humanities students are some of the best performers in verbal and quantitative reasoning tests  — many right-wing pundits like to take cheap shots at the humanities for being “impractical.” This instrumental view of the world, in which value is a function of market price, threatens the existence of the humanities and thus our culture.

Jared Moffat ’13 would rather be a starving philosopher than a wealthy investment banker but hopes there is middle ground somewhere. Please send job offers to jared_moffat@brown.edu 

 

Claire Gianotti ’13: No

The system of higher education in this country is severely flawed. Exorbitant costs are prohibitive and require many students to rely on outside funding such as scholarships and financial aid. Such programs often contribute to these high costs or are threatened by government cuts like the recent sequester. Universities take on eager and gifted graduate students as cheap labor to feed the higher education monster, only to produce pale and hunchbacked Ph.D.s with few job prospects.

As a result, pundits say the humanities are threatened on both the supply and demand side. Funding cuts will require some programs to shrink and others to be eliminated. Existing programs will probably be accessible only for a large sum. As long as costs stay high and lucrative jobs scarce, many fear few will opt to study the humanities even if they have the opportunity to do so.

The American university system is largely unsustainable, and it will have to change. But this will not threaten the humanities, a division that transcends the institutions that proliferate it.

The humanities have survived every dark age, global recession, human conflict and environmental crisis. As long as there exist writers, artists, poets, philosophers, musicians or actors among the human race, there will exist entranced souls to study them and archive their work, and they will seek out the institutions where they can do it. For these reasons, the pagan classics were preserved and studied in European monasteries by those whose religious vows fundamentally opposed the views expressed by those texts.

But many say the modern university is changing the essence of the humanities, forcing the discipline to become more research-based in order to compete with its science-y counterparts. They claim the arts have lost their romance by focusing less on ideas and abstract truths and more on factual accuracy. But that too is a misunderstanding of the value of the discipline. “The humanities” itself is a changing species, and its approach is a reflection of the ethos of its present society. The permeation of the humanities by the ambivalent ‘ologies’ — archaeology, anthropology, sociology, etc. — has opened up whole new historical demographics unrepresented by the literary tradition. Scholars now have a newfound understanding of past civilizations and cultures through uncovering the experiences of the likes of peasant farmers, women and slaves. This new approach is a clear reflection of modern Western values of universalism and human rights.

The humanistic disciplines are not static. They are fundamentally fickle. A humanities education is an escape from the present, but it is also inseparable from it. The humanities teach us as much about societies and cultures far removed in time and space as it does about our own contemporary experience. There will always be a place for the arts as an organ of self-criticism and introspection.

 

Claire Gianotti ’13 is a classicist by training and a humanist at heart. She is also still seeking employment: claire_gianotti@brown.edu.

 

Gianotti’s rebuttal:

My colleague is absolutely right when he defends the inherent value in a humanities education. He should trust in the infallibility of his argument.

The job market seems more promising for those with engineering and programming expertise than for those of us with communication, research and analytical strengths. But do not be dismayed or deceived: There is huge demand for such skill sets along with the bright and creative minds that come with them. Success is certainly not defined by entry-level salary.

The notion that a humanities education is a pointless luxury threatens the health of our society. The humanities are not pointless, wasteful or impractical. But they certainly are, and have always been, a luxury.

For most of human history, mere literacy, much less an education of arts and letters, was reserved for the elite. Government-sponsored and -subsidized education is an invention of the 19th century and perhaps one of the most important milestones for human civilization. The question is, when money is tight, is a humanities education a commodity that government should tax its citizens to provide? Schools like SUNY-Albany have adamantly declared no.

The initiative to provide access to a humanities education to anyone and everyone who wants one is a noble effort and one well worth pursuing for the betterment of any society. It creates moral and visionary leaders and promotes communication, understanding and toleration.

But falling short of the goal of providing a universal humanities education does not mean the death of humanistic disciplines. Limited access to cultural and intellectual pursuits may signal the decline of our society itself. But as long as we as a species continue to feel joy, to suffer, to accomplish and to fail, the humanities will exist somewhere. Neither the artist nor the philosopher will be suppressed.

For society to truly prosper, we should make the humanities public through libraries, museums and theaters and keep education available and affordable. But do it for our own sake, not for the sake of the discipline. There is no greater source of wealth than the human spirit.

 

Moffat’s rebuttal:

I agree with most of the points Gianotti makes, but it seems we are talking past each other a bit. Essentially, my argument is that the humanities are in danger because the values and principles that underpin them are being eroded, and this should worry us. It is not so much that there is a risk of the humanities being permanently snuffed out of existence. It is more that the humanities are becoming increasingly irrelevant, inaccessible and devalued by our society. The result is cultural decadence, and that, I argue, is why we should be troubled by this disturbing trend of fewer humanities students and less funding for these departments.

The technological, scientific, organizational and productive achievements of humanity are certainly things we should be proud of, and my argument is in no way suggesting we should value the sciences less than we do. But we must not forget that it is also our capacity for culture that makes human beings so special. Creativity, self-expression and critical reflection are inherently worthwhile endeavors — that is, good for their own sake, not because they produce a profit. What is so deeply troubling about the anti-humanities tirades we are hearing from some members of the right is that they apparently see these things as frivolous and dispensable.

These pundits seem to think the values of wisdom, tradition and collective spirituality should be discarded in favor of another set of values: efficiency, wealth and power. I think there is enough room for both sets of values, and that is what the modern university embodies so well. But increasingly, we are being pressured to view the humanities as a disposable luxury, rather than an essential element of the great human project.

We almost never hear public leaders acknowledge the importance of the humanities. In all his major speeches over the past four or five years, President Obama has consistently praised the sciences and emphasized the need to invest more resources into math, science and vocational education. He argues that we must do so in order to stay “competitive” in the global economy. This kind of thinking is precisely what puts the humanities in danger. And all of us — scientists and humanists alike — should be concerned.