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Yue Wang '12: In defense of humanities

 

A recent budget cut at the State University of New York at Albany resulted in the elimination of its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater programs. This betokens a shocking crisis of the study of humanities, one defining element of the "liberal arts education" tradition of which the American higher education system has long been proud.

To our relief, while other American universities are redirecting money from humanities to sciences under financial pressures, Brown University's new grant of three million dollars for the Humanities Initiative will allow for the sustaining and development of interdisciplinary study in the humanities. With this money, for example, the German department is now able to appoint new faculties and work towards the development of a more interdisciplinary academic program. By firmly supporting the development of the humanities, the University is sending us a message, in accordance with the spirit of the Brown Curriculum, that humanities are indispensable for our overall liberal arts education.

Nevertheless, one cannot stop being concerned about the future of humanities in American colleges, even an Ivy League institution like Brown. After all, the student body's persistent interest and lasting passion in humanities subjects is the only guarantee that humanities programs won't fall to the mercy of unpredictable amounts of outside donations. The students' interest in humanities could be demonstrated by enrollment in these academic programs — one justification of the cut cited by the president of SUNY was that "there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs."

According to Stanley Fish, a contributor to the New York Times' Opinionator blog, in the history of American higher education, humanities used to be the location of much of the intellectual energy and inspiration for many other disciplines in the '60s and '70s. In stark contrast to the "good old days," a dwindling number of students today are enrolled in humanities degree programs. Looking at the Brown statistics in the past ten years, the number of concentrators in humanities studies either perennially remains in the single digits or has experienced a drastic decline, while the number of concentrators for more pragmatic subjects, such as economics, has doubled. This situation is further exacerbated by the current financial crisis; concerned primarily with post-graduation employment, students tend to divert their academic focus from the lofty humanities to more skill-based and vocation-oriented subjects.

Students should be concerned about their post-grad career and cannot be persuaded to ignore the job prospects of their chosen majors or coursework in college. However, what I want to argue is that the students' presumption that humanities won't pay their bills or pay as well as other subjects in the future is simply short-sighted. The fact that Ivy League students don't take courses in Communications Disorders or Forensic Chemistry (like students in third-tier state universities and community colleges) but end up getting better jobs anyway tells us that a complete liberal arts education, rather than vocational training, is still highly valued by most employers.

The reasons that humanities can make us more competitive in job markets are numerous. The study of languages and cultures prepares us to communicate and mediate within different systems of values and beliefs. The study of literature trains our divergent thinking, which is essential to creativity and innovation. The study of philosophy helps to develop our critical thinking and argumentative skills. Even after thousands of years and drastic changes in the modern world, who could deny that Socrates' insights into the human soul are not as true as ever? Most of all, the ability to write eloquently and logically (as a result of completing countless numbers of analytical papers) will definitely make us an invaluable asset for any employer.

Indeed, the interdisciplinary nature of the humanities and the diverse skills we will have accrued through four years of liberal arts education would actually make us more adaptable to various kinds of vocations than people trained in certain technical areas, thus landing us higher-paying jobs. Our adaptability to various jobs, especially those requiring a cosmopolitan outlook (such as business representatives), should be highly valued.

Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor, said, "Knowing how to interpret cultural expressions and evaluate belief systems is as indispensable in the professional world as knowing how to use a computer." However, too often we have arbitrarily judged what is useful and what is not before getting on the road of discovery. While humanities are getting the axe and being replaced by ECON 0110 and ENGN 0090 in our choice of courses, we are at the same time giving up the opportunity to get a complete liberal arts education in exchange for generic vocational training.

 

 

Yue Wang '12 is a political science and German studies concentrator from Shanghai. She can be contacted at

yue_wang (at) brown.edu.


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