Editor’s note: Search the word “humanities” online and up pops the phrase “humanities under attack.” The majority of undergraduates today are majoring in business, science and technology disciplines. Technology—and its promise of being able to fix all problems—is, it seems, king.
What does all this mean for higher education? Why have the humanities undergone a crisis of legitimacy? And why does this matter?
We asked four former university presidents—of Clemson University, University of Florida, University of Wisconsin and Virginia Tech—to give us their perspectives on these questions.
Bernie Machen, University of Florida
Critical thinking, appreciation of the arts and humanities and understanding how to relate to society and the natural world are essential characteristics of the educated person.
Historically, the liberal arts and humanities have contributed to developing such a person. But there is real concern over how this is occurring in today’s universities.
The decline in the number of students taking liberal arts majors (7 percent in 2013, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) has at least three causes.
First, academia—especially public institutions of higher education—has deferred responsibility for directing the college curriculum. In the last 30 years, professional disciplines like business and engineering have eliminated core curricula and tailored courses to specific competencies.
Second, administrators and even state legislators have emphasized that general education (the traditional humanities “cores” like English and history) can be accounted for with credits from high school and community colleges. The focus of higher education then becomes preparation for a job.
And, third, the humanities and social sciences have not done enough to stimulate interest in their disciplines.
It took legislation at the state level to allow us at the University of Florida (UF) to get the humanities back into the curriculum through requiring of all students 12 hour credits of UF only “core courses.”
Today every UF freshman has to take “What Is the Good Life?,” a course that introduces its syllabus to students with the following paragraph:
“The question is especially relevant for a detailed examination as you become more and more involved in making the decisions that will shape your future and the future of others. In order to make reasonable, ethical, well-informed life choices, it is useful to reflect upon how one might aspire to live both as an individual, and a member of local and global communities."
Whatever happened to the recognition that a university education has at least three purposes: helping one understand who they are and what excites and motivates them; helping understand one’s relationship to the greater world; and, also, becoming prepared for a job.
Jim Barker, Clemson University
Bernie Machen’s analysis is spot on. The core curriculum has shrunk at public universities and general education is increasingly provided by community colleges. To counter this, Clemson (like the University of Florida and others) has developed new programs, in our case multi-disciplinary undergraduate research teams through the Creative Inquiry initiative.
Consider this. Apple Inc has now reached a market valuation of $770 billion: It is the world’s most valuable company, worth more than Exxon and Berkshire Hathaway combined.
But as founder Steve Jobs himself said when launching the iPad in 2010: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
In my experience, business leaders and employers recognize the value of this marriage and look for it in our graduates. It is clear that to thrive in a society where they may have up to six different careers, business and STEM graduates need also to be curious and creative, to be critical thinkers and good communicators.
My exemplar here is Clemson architecture graduate Carl Sobocinski whose renovation of historic buildings into restaurants has led to a remarkable urban revitalization of Greenville, South Carolina and to a career, for him, as a “serial entrepreneur” in the hospitality industry.
Charles Steger, Virginia Polytechnic Institute
The world is beset with complex and often intractable problems where unfortunately sub-optimization is often the best possible outcome.
Problem solving and the effective application of these solutions require that multiple dimensions of the human intellect be employed. These range from deductive reasoning to the exercise of substantive aesthetic judgment.
Consider, for example, the design of a public housing project.
For the design of the building itself, the square footage per family, structural design and fire code requirements are all known and quantifiable. Logical deductive reasoning is the perfect tool.
However, there are psychological, sociological, economic, and environmental dimensions with hundreds of variables. Many of these cannot be quantified and yet they need to be integrated into the solution if the project is to be successful. This is where the aesthetic judgment and informed intuition must complement deductive reasoning. The former, in turn, draw upon the ability to recognize complex patterns of association and key structuring variables which often change from problem to problem.
How are these additional capacities for reasoning developed? Through experience. Experiential learning exercises and experience, not lectures, strengthen the capacity to recognize complex patterns with many variables of high uncertainty. They inform the intuition.
The failure to incorporate studies in the liberal arts and humanities, along with STEM education, will deprive the next generation of students the critical thinking skills and context necessary to address the challenges they will face in the future.
Kevin Reilly, University of Wisconsin
George Bernard Shaw opined that all professions are a conspiracy against the laity.
Humanities faculty have too often conspired well. Insider jargon—like hermeneutics—is rife. Talking about “the epistemology of post-structuralist overdetermination” does not do much to excite most undergraduates about literature.
Ironically, this “insider trading” has occurred at the same time that the Western canon is being stretched to connect to contemporary popular culture in such domains as film, television, music, and the new social media. The next course title could be “James Joyce and Irish Cinematic Zombiism.”
The apparent lack—in so many cases—of connective tissue joining the three elements of the curriculum—the major, general education, and electives—has further stoked anxiety that there is no common understanding of what an educated, 21st century American should know and be able to do.
But we do know. Employers send a consistent message about what they look for in a college-educated employee: the ability to write clearly, speak persuasively, analyze data effectively, work in diverse groups, and understand the competitive global knowledge environment.
These characteristics are all nurtured and tested in a purposeful liberal arts education. Employers want these capacities in their hires. And, critically, American democracy needs them in its citizens. Because of the overwhelming jumble of information and misinformation that surrounds us, a citizen without the kind of rangy mind the liberal arts cultivate is likely to have her citizenship hijacked.
There is, without doubt, a critical need to rethink and restructure the liberal arts core to help develop intellectually lively and engaged citizens and leaders. The good news is that this also constitutes an opportunity that society is looking to colleges and universities to seize.