Oh the humanities
As students anxiously flock to majors grounded in science and mathematics to ensure job security, humanities departments across the country are scrambling to justify their existence to an increasingly skeptical public. In an effort to get more students to pursue a humanistic education, the Committee on the Humanities and Social Sciences—a body co-chaired by President Richard Brodhead—has released “The Heart of the Matter,” a report vigorously defending humanistic inquiry and education.
The report rightly contends that a vibrant democracy requires a citizenry that can communicate clearly and appreciate the rich diversity of human experience. The report displays a troubling tendency, however, to promote these skills as valuable for economic reasons alone, which reduces the personal and social importance of the humanities to its success in propping up the economy.
Although the report is not wrong to suggest that a renewed commitment to the humanities stands to benefit the economy, the Committee’s attempt to cast the humanities as a guardian of economic growth offers a glimpse at the reductive economism that has caused so many dollars and students to flee from the humanities in favor of more “practical” areas of study.
The humanities has suffered in recent years because students, administrators, donors and the American public do not consider humanistic disciplines to have as much immediate and tangible economic value as fields like engineering, which offer clear vocational paths. The commission has attempted to address this concern by emphasizing the humanities’ ability to build an “adaptable and creative workforce” and strengthen national economic competitiveness. The authors, understandably, adopt a language critics will understand. But in attempting to justify the existence of the humanities by emphasizing its economic value, the committee legitimizes the very logic that has prompted students and donors to bypass the humanities. This type of argument has caused universities like Duke to look a lot like high-level trade schools.
Although the committee’s effort is commendable, the report may have been stronger if it simply dismissed reductive economic arguments as missing the point, because they do. Seeking to cultivate personal and civic growth, the humanities teach students how to communicate confidently and think critically, ultimately preparing them for a lifelong engagement with questions about what it means to be human. Articulate and perceptive individuals who engage earnestly with these questions not only bring openness, civility and a commitment to human welfare to a world that sorely needs it, but they also add depth and texture to their lives and the lives of others.
The economy is a tool that helps us to secure the material goods we need to live, but holding it up, as we often do, as the end goal of all social activity mistakes the means for the ends. In emphasizing the humanities’ instrumental value over its intrinsic worth, the committee’s report has made just that mistake.
The humanities are not valuable because they promise to revive a sluggish economy. They are valuable because they expand our knowledge of the world and its inhabitants, sustain a conversation with history, art and culture and help us to construct a more just and inclusive society. And this, in our view, is the true heart of the matter.