Sunday Longreads: Humanitarian Crisis
Why non-STEM education matters
“Make human nature your study wherever you reside—whatever the religion or the complexion, study their hearts.” — Ignatius Sancho, 1778
There’s been a renewed (or perhaps continued) interest in humanities — philosophy, history, sociology, English, and other related topics — in education.
We seem to be spending more time on screens and less time with books. On problems of engineering and programming and not of the underlying issues they’re addressing — or creating.
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One way to address this disparity is to ensure we’ve got a better understanding of the humanities. It doesn’t require a college degree, but at a minimum, we ought to be curious about these things.
These two longer pieces give that some deeper consideration.
Me Fail English? That’s Unpossible
It was kicked off by a recent article in The New Yorker that took note of the falling percentage of humanities majors at universities: “The End of the English Major.”
During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined over all by seventeen per cent, Townsend found. What’s going on? The trend mirrors a global one; four-fifths of countries in the Organization for Economic Coöperation reported falling humanities enrollments in the past decade. But that brings little comfort to American scholars, who have begun to wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before.
The goal of such an education isn’t direct career training but cultivation of the mind—the belief that Lionel Trilling caricatured as “certain good things happen if we read literature.” This model describes one of those pursuits, like acupuncture or psychoanalysis, which seem to produce salutary effects through mechanisms that we have tried but basically failed to explain.
So if humanities don’t sell themselves, we need to do a better job of selling them. One professor at Arizona State University realized this and did something about it:
The students also had no idea which careers humanities study led to, so Cohen decided to teach a course called Making a Career with a Humanities Major. “One of the things the students do is choose a famous humanities major and write about that person,” he said. “Many students are first-generation and bringing the weight of their family tradition with them to the classroom. If they know that someone like John Legend studied literature and made a really great career, they’re, like, ‘O.K.!’ ”
Oh, the Humanities!
Inspired by the phrase uttered by reporter Herbert Morrison as he watched the Hindenburg explode, this piece from our archives has been getting a lot of pick-up in the wake of the article above.
Perception, imagination, and insights come from years of experience on the job, but they also come from being widely read and learning how to think critically.
These are attributes that are a consequence of an education in the humanities.
In the age of the rise of STEM education, philosophizing about the humanities might seem counterintuitive.
The challenge of course is that over the last 30 or so years, universities have essentially become high-ticket trade schools — where broadening the mind is less important than lining the pocket-book:
“Students don’t go to school to acquire the wisdom of Solomon. They go to school to acquire a cash value and improve their lot, to pick up the keys to the kingdom stocked with the treasures to be found in a BMW showroom or an Arizona golf resort.” — Lewis H. Lapham, 2008
Degrees in hand after a sunny spring commencement ceremony, they accept job offers and plunge headlong into a new environment, eagerly learning a trade—a trade, odds are, for which their liberal arts institutions or humanities degrees have not prepared them.
Or have they?
At first blush, Plato doesn’t seem to be of much use in computer programming; Hannibal may have crossed the Alps on elephants, but he can’t navigate an algorithm for an autonomous vehicle; and Abraham Lincoln thought that the world would little note nor long remember what he said, but can he help write ad copy?
Ralph Waldo Emerson grappled with this topic nearly 200 years ago:
In fact, Emerson plainly stated the interplay between our work lives and our education: “When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.”
Just over a decade ago, Lewis Lapham noted that he regularly came across academic journals and alumni magazines with “articles that might as well be entitled ‘What In God’s Name Are the Humanities, and Why Are They of Any Use to Us Here in the Bright Blue Technological Wonder of the Twenty-First Century?’”
Technology has advanced well beyond its capabilities in Mr. Lapham’s observation in 2008. But the need for humanities has not.
Since then, we’ve seen the fine-tuning of artificial intelligence, the creation of the gig economy, and the rise of the power of social media.
As a result, we’ve seen unconscious built-in biases in A.I., a feudal class system made up of taxi-driving serfs, and a global communications platform that puts the very idea of democracy at risk led by a CEO who has all the power of a dictator.
Here’s the full piece, along with helpful links and further reading.
So, what do you think? Is there hope (or a need) for humanities? Leave a comment with your take — and also let me know if this kind of round-up would be helpful on a regular basis.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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Like a lot of things of the mid-late 20th Century, a liberal arts education was a rare bird that floated on the wave of modernist prosperity.
When i graduated high school in 1980, or when my parents graduated in the late 50s, there was an optimism that one would land a job without a specialized education. I studied a range of humanities-related topics in college for 5 years, never graduated, and have had careers in journalism, music production, landscaping, and for the past 10 years have been a worker-owner at a cooperative food business.
That optimism is, rightly, not present for recent generations, and the perceived requirement for specialized education is far more compelling than it used to be so the landscape seems very different to me.
For me, what's compelling about a self-reflective and robust humanities education now is that it may be the only way to save us from ourselves. The more powerful and universally distributed or specialized scientific powers become, the more desperately we're going to need wisdom and humility to avoid destroying ourselves. It may have seemed a luxury 50 years ago, now it's all that stands between us and 14 different kinds of armageddon.
As a HigherEd professional I long for the embrace of strong humanities with a STEM or other "Career Ready" majors. We need critical thought. We need curiosity. We need art. We need humanities.