The Embattled Humanities

March 6, 2009

The New York Times recently ran an article by Patricia Cohen suggesting that “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” In a fight for diminished resources and students who are worried about job prospects, can colleges and universities still afford departments that offer degrees in languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion? The humanities’ share of the education market has been shrinking for decades, and the current downturn is not helping.

Responses to the article, under the heading of “Humanities and the Examined Life,” quickly followed. They speak to both the intrinsic worth of training in the humanities and the current dilemma of finding a job in a chaotic economy. Carol Geary Schneider, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose report was cited by Cohen, pointed out that a college education needs to prepare graduates for “real-world problems, examined choices, and responsible action.”

Humanities councils take a broader view of the enterprise in which we share. As one of our state council colleagues remarked, “But the humanities are not merely academic matters; they’re all around us, and they matter deeply to individuals and communities.”

How much, then, are the humanities worth — to students, to the economy, to a perplexed nation? What is the best argument for the humanities?

One comment

  1. When I was in getting my B.A. in English Literature, I taught in the Writing Center on campus to earn a few extra bucks. It was a place where students could come to get help if they were having trouble with writing assignments.

    One student I will never forget was a freshman named Mike. He was a young man at college on the G.I. Bill, fresh out of the service and struggling with academic life. He came to me with help on a creative writing assignment.

    Mike could do technical writing. He brought his rough draft to me, and it was gramatically correct, but what was there was lacked emotion, creativity and flow. I still remember one line: “Rain, sleet or snow, a NCO [non-commissioned officer] must be ready to go!” It was like this guy was still living on the military base and expecting his commanding officer to issue orders.

    I gave him several copies of creative essays to read for examples and we went over how they differed from his rough draft. He took some of them home.

    After several sessions, Mike returned with a beautiful essay, but it wasn’t so much that as the change I could see in his thought process and the way he was inspired by the essays he had read that really made the impression on me. I could tell that his outlook on life had changed, even if just a little.

    He had relaxed a little into his academic environment -found a way to fit it into his world, and that, to me, is as good an argument as any for keeping humanities alive in our schools. They help us find our place in a sometimes intimidating society. They make sense out of the larger chaos and help us find our niche.

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