Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Yes, But What Are You Going to Do with It?

The question in the title is a familiar one to people who are working towards a degree in one of the humanities. I heard it even back in those prehistoric days when I was in college. Apparently, it's being asked today with great frequency.

I personally find the graphic to the right pretty depressing. I'm the product of a liberal education, now in the autumn of life, and I would not have traded my expertise in history; my love for the written word, the arts, fine music; and a fascination with the big questions posed by philosophy and religion for all the tea in China. I've been shaped by my liberal arts education. What sensitivity and tolerance I've been able to cultivate are direct descendants of my education, which began back in my high school days of Latin and Homeric Greek, classes in poetry, and regular written exercises everyone, no exceptions, was required to write. During the course of my schooling, one lesson stood out above all others: Language is important. It is key. How to understand it, interpret it, use it effectively. We were taught that language could be used to deceive as well as to enlighten, uplift, or transport information. And we learned how to spot those deceptions and the faulty logic that underpinned them. It's called critical thinking, and judging by the work I regularly see from college students in my online classes, it's a skill that is simply not being taught to anyone anymore. Apparently, now that we're in tough times, the little remnant of those students who are honing such skills is going to shrink even further.

According to this New York Times article, the humanities are under increasing pressure in colleges and universities to justify their very existence. The traditional reason for studying them--"a traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation. Rather, the critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop have a different purpose: They are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice."--is simply not good enough anymore. Study of subjects that help you to appreciate what and who you are, to mold you into a more rounded human being, to address questions that lie at the core of what it means to be human does nothing for the almighty, the wretched, the accursed bottom line. Our god, our master, our beloved.

"[T]he humanities are under greater pressure than ever to justify their existence to administrators, policy makers, students and parents. Technology executives, researchers and business leaders argue that producing enough trained engineers and scientists is essential to America’s economic vitality, national defense and health care."

Notice the array of people the humanities have to answer to. I myself don't see any particular compelling reason to regard the pressure from any of these categories of people something I should lose sleep over. All these types, but especially business leaders, technology executives, and policy makers aren't exactly renowned for their humanistic approach to life. In fact, it's these people who have largely brought us to our current nadir. As for students, I've always argued that it was the collective madness of the 1960s that empowered the students to control the curricula in universities. Talk about something illogical and counter-intuitive.

But the decline of the humanities (and the concomitant rise of national brutishness, something that is already widespread and growing) seems to be an irreversible trend. Just in the last three months, over two dozen universities have dropped their searches for teachers of religion and philosophy. And we read that some large state universities "routinely" turn away students looking for courses in the humanities. This country is determined to hasten its demise as a culture that deserves to be remembered by anybody. A thousand years from now, assuming humanity still exists, this country if it's noticed at all will be remembered as nation of soulless consumers who sank out of sight in their own self-created morass of greed, ignorance, violence, short-sighted hedonism, and rapacious acquisitiveness. A forgettable nation of barbarians.
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