The Humanities Are Crucial Regardless
Since the Reagan era of the 1980s, we have heard arguments of varying degrees from various quarters lamenting the supposed “fact” that studying liberal arts or the humanities, in general, was a colossal waste of time and hardly the most sagacious path for college students to pursue. As a Generation X teenager, this was the initial message that was routinely being fed to me and my peers. More than a decade later as a graduate student in the humanities, my intense skepticism toward such dismissive rhetoric abounded. Now as a tenured middle-aged full professor who is deeply engaged in the humanities as my scholarship transcends several disciplines, it turns out that my skepticism was well-founded.
In an article written by Jessica Stillman at Vox.com confirmed my deeply held suspicions. Stillman’s predictions were also echoed by Dan Schnabel, New York Times Best Selling Author and CEO of Millennial Branding, and George Arson and Toby Russell Co-CEOs of Shift.com.
Each of these individuals convincingly makes the case that many corporations have come to the abrupt conclusion that sole reliance on engineering, business and technology will not be sufficient for companies to maintain any degree of competitive advantage in the future. In addition, as technology further evolves and becomes more complex, companies will not be able to rely on black and white approaches to solving problems. Rather, the ability to theorize and conceptualize will become of greater importance.
Schnabel, Arson, and Russell are hardly the only voices arguing that accelerating innovation and its complex impacts on society will lead to a greater demand for the critical thinking and communication skills you learn studying the liberal arts. Many other tech CEOs with academic backgrounds steeped in the humanities themselves are happy to testify to the usefulness of these often periodically ridiculed degrees.
The truth is that for quite some time, businesses and employers have been aggressively seeking to employ graduates who possess a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. It goes without saying these are the sorts of skills that anyone who pursues an education in the humanities will often receive.
Admittedly, I will concede that I was grinning like a Cheshire cat when I came across such inspiring news. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have engaged in with people of varied backgrounds who have decried as well as derided what they saw as the supposed “irrelevance” of the humanities by those in certain academic and public sectors.
Indeed, I have sparred with more than a few engineers, business people, accountants, chemists, and individuals of similar professions at coffeehouses, conferences, symposiums and other venues. Some of these people have been friends, other total strangers. They have been so convinced in the supposed supremacy of medicine, business, technology, and the hard sciences in general, that they have been totally blinded by the crucial impact that liberal arts have had on the larger society.
Many of these anti-humanities men and women have been quick to dismiss my arguments based on the fact that they have referred to (or rather have been seriously misguided)previous studies (now discredited to a notable extent), stating that college graduates with non-technical degrees tend to have higher unemployment rates than those who are the recipient of such a degree.
I have attempted to make the case to such naysayers that to minimize the value of the humanities, or any other area of academic inquiry for that matter, to one’s ability to earn an ample salary is to misunderstand the purpose of what such an education is about. For the record, there is evidence that convincingly disputes such myopic assumptions. A classic liberal arts education introduces students to art, languages, literature, history, race and gender-based courses, philosophy, interdisciplinary courses, sciences and other related areas of academic pluralism.
More importantly, such an education provides its recipients with the ability and vital ingredients necessary to think critically and holistically about a plethora of issues, including business, science, and technology for that matter. Salaries and income levels aside, being exposed to a multitude of subjects and deep critical inquiry is what the humanities is all about.
I cannot tell you how many students I have had in my more than two decades of being a college professor who has responded on student evaluations of my courses with comments such as “this should be a required course.” “I learned about all sides of the issue, not just the popular one.” “This class has made me see things from a totally different perspective.” This class has made me consider switching majors” etc.
There is no doubt that numerous other college professors have witnessed similar responses as well. Needless to say, such remarks are immensely gratifying for any academic. It means that you have touched and connected with certain students! There are been a number of proponents of the liberal arts who have made the case for its importance. Washington Post columnist Valarie Strauss wrote a succinct, spot-on op-ed a few years ago that is very relevant today.
By no means, should one dismiss the importance of science, math, technology, engineering and other STEM-related fields? Such disciplines are paramount and crucial to the continuing strengthening of our society and will continue to be so. That being said, the fact is that one does not become successful or proficient in any endeavor or any profession (and that includes STEM fields) without a good, solid grounding in critical thinking skills that a liberal arts education provides. In short, the humanities are the cornerstone of any complete and well-rounded education. Period!
This post was previously published on Medium.com
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