An Intentional and Inclusive Vision for the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century
Like many disciplinary associations, the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) hold their large member meetings in January. For the MLA and AHA, last month’s meetings were marked by discussions of how to “sell” their disciplines at a time when all of the humanities face questions about their continued relevance and practicality. The MLA even included a panel focused on “Advocating the English Major.” Better selling could mean emphasizing the “future forecasting potential of historians,” as one AHA panel suggested, or placing greater emphasis on writing and media in the English major, as faculty presenters from Spelman College suggested their department is doing, rather than the literary studies than some students and policymakers see as less practical.
But better salesmanship by itself is no prescription, says Michael Meotti of the Ed Policy Group. “The liberal arts experience remains relevant today and, in fact, should be even more important to living a meaningful life in an increasingly complex world,” Meotti says, “But liberal arts have to mean something. It cannot just be a credit distribution scheme or a list of disciplines surrounding a dizzying array of courses that don’t build to something greater than the sum of its credits.” AAC&U has long made the same point and has championed deliberate pathways in which students integrate their learning from across the disciplines as they engage with big questions and ideas that matter to society.
Some MLA presenters also made the point that making the humanities and the other liberal arts more relevant in the twenty-first-century also means making them accessible to all students, including those who have traditionally been underserved by higher education. In a panel on teaching literature at community colleges, Ian Sherman-Youngblood of Green River College, asked, “How do we as educators create a space where marginalized students, students of color, students whose first language is not English, in which their space of self is not violated by academe?" Or as MLA director of research David E. Laurence put it, the conversation has to shift from correcting students’ “academic deficits” and developing “practical literacy” to helping all students engage in "humanistic reflection.”
Read Insider Higher Ed’s full coverage of the MLA and AHA meetings, and Michael Meotti’s essay on selling the liberal arts. Also see AAC&U’s 2014 study How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths.