The other day, I wrote on the rise of STEM education as well as alternate forms of post-secondary training. I argued that for many these forms of education provide the opportunity for productive work and economic advance. Also, I noted that the traditional liberal arts, humanities-oriented education might be an unaffordable luxury for many who do not come from more leisured, elite backgrounds. You might think I have it out for the humanities. And you couldn’t be more wrong.
The word “humanities” points to the fact that these disciplines have to do with the “human.” Historically, these disciplines have explored what it means to be human, how we have thought and lived out our humanness through history, what the life well-lived looks like, what constitutes the good, the true, and the beautiful, from whence they come, and why they matter. The worth of the humanities have been argued as the intellectual enrichment, and the depth of understanding, and character that informs virtuous life and citizenship. Stanford University defines the humanities as follows:
The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.
Some of the courses I took in college (many were Gen Ed required courses) set me on a lifelong journey of learning. Most significant were a couple of courses in history that helped me see that history wasn’t simply about events and dates but understanding the complex variables of politics, economics, personality, beliefs, and so much else that contribute to events. I trace my love of history from those courses that impressed me with the idea that there was a value in knowing how we got here historically. Likewise, literature courses taught me to read deeply and critically, enhancing my enjoyment and appreciation of works. A philosophy course helped me understand the key figures in philosophy and the great questions of ultimate reality, ethics, and the ideas of the good, the true and the beautiful. I didn’t major in any of these disciplines but the courses began a lifelong pursuit of learning in each. This leads me to some observations:
- It appears to me that the radical skepticism and suspicion that seems to characterize some of the critical approaches particularly in literature and history may be digging these disciplines’ graves, rather than fostering a love of the humanities among both majors and non-majors. I can never forget the stunned look of a grad student in literature when I asked her when was the last time she had enjoyed a book.
- It seems we need to accept the reality that because of the demands of many technical disciplines there will be limited opportunity for humanities education of college students and thought and research needs to be devoted to how this might whet the appetite of the receptive to pursue lifelong learning.
- I wonder if there needs to be a conversation between secondary educators and the higher ed world on how to make the most of both high school and Gen Ed courses in the humanities. We saw dedicated high school teachers at my son’s school foster an engaged learning in lit and history courses.
- I’m struck with how much interest in the humanities there is among educated adults later in life. There is the example of The Great Courses and other online courses as well as reading groups organized around various interests in many communities. In our state, adults over 60 can audit courses at state universities and this affords opportunities for humanities educators to engage with motivated students.
- Departments who want to attract more majors need to be both compelling and honest. Majors may very well need to do a graduate degree or a second undergrad degree in a more employable field. For a student to choose that form of double work means they need compelling reasons to pursue these fields of study, inherent in the discipline.
This brings me to a critical question. The liberal arts developed in the context of the cathedral schools and universities that grew out of the church and the early universities in this country that were almost all church-related institutions. The liberal arts grew out of a perspective that rooted goodness, truth, and beauty in the transcendent, that understood both the greatness and fallibility of human beings, that saw history as having a telos or end and not simply the study of the will to power, or just “one damn thing after another” as Henry Ford saw it. It is striking that so many, like Anthony Kronman, continue to argue for the humanities, acknowledge their religious roots and yet are unwilling to allow a possible role of scholars of faith in contemporary studies in the humanities even though they may be the allies who may play a key role in their recovery.
The demise of the humanities would be a great loss. We are human beings and not just human doings. Understanding what it means to be human, and how to live well, and to understand how humans live best in society are all things the humanities can teach us. Might it not be one of those times when all who value the humanities, whether people of faith or not, come together to re-conceive their place in the academy? Along the way, we all might learn a bit more about what it means to be human.