AAC&U News, August 2017

Perspectives – Are the Humanities in Crisis?

It’s easy to feel like the humanities are under siege. Funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities was threatened by President Donald Trump’s budget proposal in May, and fewer students are receiving bachelor’s degrees in humanities fields each year while many STEM fields continue to grow. However, according to students, faculty, and innovators with backgrounds in the humanities, the skills they received from their studies of the humanities are as valuable as ever.

For Jad Abumrad, creator and cohost of Radiolab (which he calls “science for poets”), the outlook for the humanities looks bleak. “It feels like the humanities are in crisis right now,” Abumrad said in a recent interview with EdSurge. “As much as we talk about a lack of science literacy in our country, which is real, I feel like STEM has deep footholds in education right now. The importance of that has been embraced but the importance of the humanities has been lost in a lot of places.”

The importance of the liberal arts and humanities has been lost even among many of Liyanga de Silva’s University of Maryland classmates. “Even though I’ve never been ashamed of my decision [to study the humanities], I’ve always had to defend it,” she wrote in a recent article in the Diamondback. “Why do I need to defend a major that teaches you to be detail-oriented, analytical, and perceptive? I’m just a year into my major, and my writing, communication, and empathy skills have all improved. In what world is it shameful to leave college with a degree that improves your mind in so many ways and gives you a foundation for whatever you want to do in the future?”

Luckily, there is hope that those who mock the humanities will one day see the light, recognizing that a liberal education background that includes humanities courses could help them in their STEM-focused careers.

Tracy Chou, an entrepreneur with Project Include who has worked for Quora and Pinterest, wrote in Quartz about regretting her negative attitude toward the humanities.

“Ruefully—and with some embarrassment at my younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education,” Chou wrote. “That I’d learned how to think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it. That I’d absorbed lessons about how to identify and interrogate privilege, power structures, structural inequality, and injustice. That I’d had opportunities to debate my peers and develop informed opinions on philosophy and morality. And even more than all of that, I wish I’d even realised that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualised by such subjects.”

Rather than contemplating the impact of their work on the common good, Chou worries that many of today’s innovators might be like her and “haven’t spent anywhere near enough time thinking about these larger questions of what it is that we are building, and what the implications are for the world.”

In her article in Fast Company, Lydia Dishman examined how humanities degrees helped three women with their tech careers at Microsoft.

“Humanities graduates have learned to ask the right questions and home in on the right answers in any given situation,” Dishman wrote.

One of the women, Emma Williams, was hired for the research skills she acquired while studying Scandinavian literature and is now the general manager of Bing Studios at Microsoft. “Along the way, Williams developed a career philosophy about the connection between humanities degrees and jobs in tech,” Dishman wrote.

“You become very skilled in new subject areas and understanding them deeply,” Williams added.

Despite the value of the humanities, many liberal arts institutions are struggling to enroll students who prefer to seek degrees in vocational, professional, or STEM fields. Some institutions are looking to court these students by offering career-oriented programs while still providing the broad liberal education that is a part of the institution’s heritage.

Lee Gardner’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education details Ohio Wesleyan University’s efforts “to boost struggling enrollment at the small private college by adding a raft of new majors, including business administration, data analytics, and nutrition.”

While these programs could possibly increase enrollment, many faculty were worried “that adding such career-oriented programs would betray the college’s liberal-arts tradition.” Gardner’s article follows the university administration’s efforts to engage faculty in this process and build buy-in for the new initiative.

“If faculty understand that there’s a problem to be solved, they can help solve it—and it probably won’t be solved without them,” Gardner wrote. 

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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