Humanities on the Rise in Higher Ed

“If, because of cutbacks and lack of support from the federal government, literature and the arts and other aspects of the humanities become just parlor musings of the wealthy, we would have made a huge mistake,’’ Dartmouth’s president, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, said in an interview. “Literature and the arts should not only be for kids who go to cotillion balls to make polite conversation at parties.’’

The Boston Globe via reported on a new push on behalf of humanities courses in colleges and universities. Someone is noticing that courses in literature,  history, philosophy, and languages make better people and better citizens of us. In 2007, only eight percent of undergraduates nationwide majored in the humanities. Read the article by Tracy Jan, and get the Globe is you appreciate the journalism. As of Monday morning, this is the top item in the Most-Emailed list on

In these difficult economic times, the argument for the humanities can sound, to some, impractical and elitist. Without the humanities, though, college presidents say they worry that students won’t develop the kind of critical thinking, imagination, and empathy necessary to solve the most pressing problems facing future generations.

In addition to bringing faculty together, said Ramie Targoff, an English professor and director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, the center will send faculty out to integrate the humanities into other schools within the university — by teaching ethics at the school of social policy and management, or Shakespeare at the business school.

3 Responses to Humanities on the Rise in Higher Ed

  1. Eric says:

    I suppose this is a good thing: Wall Street is a large monster in many ways, the economy is not perceived to be doing well, and it is more and more difficult for those in the sciences to get jobs here, especially if you have completed graduate school and are looking for PhD-level positions.

    However, do not imply that those of us in business, science, or engineering disciplines might be lesser people or citizens. We still have yet to solve the problem that our education system is going down the tubes and our public academic standards are slipping behind other nations. Maybe the English majors know more about that than I do.

  2. Andrew says:

    I feel that the lack of education in the humanities is only part of the problem. What we’re really talking about with “critical thinking, imagination, and empathy” is a liberal arts education, which in the 21st century includes much more than the humanities.

    There are two competing goals here. On one hand, we want college graduates to be able to think critically and have the capacity to develop innovative solutions. On the other hand, our society is facing serious problems and we need as many citizens as possible to be literate in the natural and social sciences.

    The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A science degree coupled with a strong grounding in other disciplines has seemed the most practical to me (and is what I’ve chosen to do as an undergraduate). The problem I see, from within a university with a strong liberal arts tradition, is more that the science-classes-for-humanities-majors are fairly pathetic, while the humanities-classes-for-science-majors are generally on par with departmental courses.

    That being said, even then too many science majors make it through without really developing the skills associated with a liberal arts education.

    I think the larger problem is that too many universities have allowed themselves to become production lines, producing graduates who have only ever taken “practical” classes. I think this ignores the fact that, if you challenge students and force them to learn to think for themselves, they can pick up job skills on the job. However, the reverse is not true.

  3. Corey says:

    I think that we’re in the situation we’re in largely because of the cost of education. The article talks about this. I have a BS in Computer Science – that is undeniably a technical degree. I didn’t go to a University, I went to a Technological Institute. That piece of paper got me a good job right out of school that pays a salary that is competitive with just about any of my peers from high school. I’m 27 – many of the people that will be easily and predictably out-earning me are just graduating from medical school and law school, and their debt load is generally tremendous.

    Now, had I gone for a liberal arts degree, at a private college, that’d still have cost me and my family $160k (more today, engineering schools have wind tunnels, why is liberal arts as expensive?), but I’d likely be making half as much money. Many of the Social Sciences and definitely the Liberal Arts usually require a higher degree to be monetarily (and often, career-wise) successful, and the money just wasn’t there for me to go (and I didn’t want the debt). Science, like Andrew said, is hurting in the US versus other countries (quite a bit of our engineering staff is foreign-born) so there is good demand, and is generally a safer path to financial stability – far more bang for your buck.

    I’ve always thought, especially after observing my parents (an English degree and MBA for my dad and a Masters of Nursing for my mom), that a BS degree means a stable career, and a BA degree is what you can make of it. And people make fantastic things out of a Liberal Arts education, no doubt about it.

    That said, RPI required a sizable number of liberal arts and social sciences classes, and I did well in them and enjoyed them. I also minored in music, overall not unusual for the both-sides-of-your-brain hybrid that software engineering is. It would be a shame for them to cut these programs, although I’m glad foreign languages and comparative lit weren’t compulsory.