AAC&U News, March 2014

Defenses of the Humanities: The Two Cultures


By Alex Beercroft, A New Deal for the Humanities (blog), January 25

With the humanities in higher education under attack, two distinct types of defenses are emerging in response. The first, says Alex Beercroft, concerns the “usefulness” of the humanities, emphasizing the critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills developed by studying these disciplines. Proponents of this defense have a new tool in a report published by AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which shows that humanities majors eventually catch up to and even surpass the incomes of their peers in preprofessional majors. A second group claims that the true value of the humanities lies in the cultivation of students’ intellectual, spiritual, and civic identities. Many who put forth this defense reject the utilitarian argument, Beercroft says, “insisting that to instrumentalize that education in this way is to deny the very values that give it life and meaning.”

Beercroft suggests, however, that these two perspectives are complementary, both intellectually and “as arguments to be made to the general public and to our students.” The imaginative empathy prized by the spiritual camp is not so distinct from the practical skills touted by the instrumentalist camp. “To enlarge one’s understanding of the horizons of possibility for human behavior—to see a problem, in other words, from a new and unexpected angle, and to develop a creative, yet reasoned, approach to that problem. Isn’t that just the sort of ‘critical thinking’ that employers claim to want from humanities graduates?”

In the end, convincing students of the intrinsic value of study in the humanities may only be possible when they are assured of the practical value in such studies. “Students rightly worry about what sort of professional and economic life they will have after graduation, and only if we take those concerns seriously, and offer a sincere account of why and how the humanities can address those concerns, do we have the chance to engage them on the deeper levels we know our subjects offer,” Beercroft says. “The argument for the spiritual value of the humanities is powerful enough, and true enough, that it can withstand a little practical deployment.”

Read the full essay online. AAC&U’s report How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths is available for purchase in print and electronic formats.

The articles featured in AAC&U News Perspectives do not necessarily represent the views of AAC&U staff, its board of directors, or its membership.

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