Last winter, the New York Times ran an article (“Humanities Studies Under Strain Around the Globe“) about the current crisis facing humanities departments at universities around the world. While the humanities have long weathered criticism that they are impractical or irrelevant in the “real world,” and cuts to humanities funding are nothing new, the present situation seems worse than ever. Now more than ever, those of us in the liberal arts need to fight for our existence and demonstrate the value of our disciplines. Not just to politicians but also to the increasingly non-academic administrators who manage our schools under the ubiquitous common (non)sense idea every public entity needs to be “run like a business.” (More about this in a future post.)
Even more importantly, we need to convince undergraduates that studying the humanities is meaningful, that a liberal arts degree provides a valuable education with essential elements not available in other more “practical” disciplines. That “soft skills” like critical thinking and sophisticated communication can prove just as significant to one’s life and career as understanding accounting principles or knowing the fundamentals of biochemistry. Unfortunately, we in English departments and other humanities haven’t been doing a very good job of demonstrating the centrality of our role in higher education, so we’re being perceived as peripheral. As dispensable.
Harvard reports that the number of students studying humanities has halved since 1966. According to a related piece in the NYT, although nearly half of faculty salaries at Stanford University are for professors in the humanities, only 15% of recent Stanford grads have majored in the humanities. Florida governor Rick Scott recently suggested that humanities students should pay higher tuition as a penalty for pursuing “nonstrategic disciplines.” Public response to the proposal has been relatively anemic. An online petition against the proposal gathered only 2,000 signatures and could only muster the weak argument that differential tuition would result in the “decimation of the liberal arts in Florida.”
Sure that sounds terrible, if you happen to care about the “liberal arts.” But it seems that most people don’t have much idea what their loss means to our culture. The “liberal arts” (English, all the other languages, literature, culture and media, philosophy, classics, etc.) represent the highest ideals of a university education. If abstract and theoretical rather than practical, the liberal arts are those disciplines designed to empower students as individuals, to inculcate the wisdom and responsibility that allows them to be good citizens, to inspire them to work for ideals and to pursue social justice, to help them serve as productive, compassionate and innovative leaders.
By contrast, the hard sciences seem almost limited by that very practicality they tout. Never mind their absolute faith in the ideological oxymoron of “scientific progress.” (I plan to discuss this at some length in a later post.) Set against the philosophical depth of the liberal arts, professional degrees and certificate programs (MBA, MD, CPA, DDS, etc.) seem like glorified trade schools.
This goes straight to why the humanities are often called the “liberal arts.” Regardless of whatever Gov. Scott may believe, they are not “liberal” (as opposed to “conservative”) in the narrowly American political sense that tends to equate them with bleeding-heart socialist ideologies. In fact, the liberal arts do not have a fundamental political bias at all. They are “liberal” in the sense of liberating, of making one free, of freeing students to think for themselves, of teaching one how to imagine what freedom means, of exploring ways to experience human freedom.
What could be more important than liberal arts to education in a democratic society? What could be more central to human experience or more vital to a meaningful life?