News / USA

Humanities Fight to Survive in High-Tech World

Liberal arts colleges face declining enrollment


Faiza Elmasry

A student studies on the quad at Amherst College, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts.
A student studies on the quad at Amherst College, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts.

Tim Clark is a senior at Amherst College, a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, where he’s studied Latin, Greek and archeology. Thanks to those classes, he says, he’s not the same person he was four years ago.

“My studies in classics and in history really changed how I think, how I look at the world and have really taught me how to see things not in sort of clear answers, but try to see all the different elements of an issue," Clark says. "The liberal arts college teaches you how to be a critical thinker and how to analyze materials.”

However, Clark feels many people don’t see the benefits of studying humanities.

“When I say I’m a classics major, a lot of people say ‘What are you going to do with that? All the information that you’ve been taught is irrelevant to the modern world.’”

Fighting to stay relevant

The term “humanities” refers to a branch of knowledge that generally includes languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. While the study of humanities peaked in the U.S. in the 1960s, it saw a steep decline the following decade.

Today, science, technology, engineering and math draw more attention, and more dollars. That leaves many universities struggling with declining enrollment in the humanities and possible budget cuts.

“There is no question that more graduates in the science and technology fields are essential," says Carolyn Martin, president of Amherst College. "But the study of culture and the ability to write well, to think well and to interact well with others, all of those things are equally important.”

In her previous job, as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Martin felt under pressure to defend the importance of humanities. This year, she serves on a commission for the American Academy of Arts and Science, which is examining the issue.

“I think we need all of the areas of knowledge not only to be well funded, but also to ensure that all young people have the fundamental skills that pertain to each of those different  domains," Martin says. "And also, by the way, the humanities are really the integrative arts. Without them, science and technology would feel quite empty to people and the question of how to put technology to human uses would be a very urgent question in the absence of the study of culture.”

Convincing others of the importance of humanities can be an uphill battle. In October 2011, for example, Florida’s governor said state tax dollars should bolster science and high tech studies, not “educate more people who can’t get a job in anthropology.”

Since state governments control nearly two-thirds of all higher education funding for public colleges and universities, their embrace of - or disregard for - humanities can affect the future of the liberal arts.

“I think the critical question," says Travis Reindl, spokesman for the National Governors Association, "is what are the certificates and degrees and certifications that the states need to really meet their economic demands both now and in the future.”

Humanities reinvented

The National Governors Association helps states align their higher education priorities with economic development. According to Reindl, the association does not advise state governments to move money from humanities.

“It’s not either liberal arts or the sciences. I think the challenge and the task that we have is to really strike the appropriate balance," he says. "We have to have engineers and scientists that can write; that can speak; that can appreciate cultural and individual differences and respect them; can work with other people effectively; whether it’s people down the hall or around the globe.”

But to stay relevant and avoid budget cuts, Reindl believes liberal arts needs to reinvent itself.

“For example, can we create partnerships between universities so that we’re able to tap into their faculty and share certain courses and programs?" he says. "Can we use technology to provide some programs remotely so that we continue to provide these essential programs, but we provide them in a way that fits the budget realities that we face?”

Broadening the scope

The Massachusetts commissioner of Higher Education has another suggestion. Richard Freeland urges students studying humanities to broaden their scope of interest.

“At the undergraduate levels, there is plenty of room for students to have a double major or major-minor combinations so that the students could take a sequence of courses in a business subject or a health/science subject or in teacher preparation and, at the same time, have room in the curriculum to explore some humanistic interest.”

And, he points out, humanities graduates can apply their knowledge to other - more technical - fields.

“For example, in an increasingly globalized world, language skills are incredibly important in fields like business, engineering, health sciences," Freeland says. "In English programs, technical writing and practical writing have grown all over the country. In music, a number of universities have developed programs in the music industry for students who love music and want to be around music, but are not talented enough to earn a living as performers.”

Finding practical applications, the commissioner says, can help the humanities survive the new technological onslaught and prove that learning about ethics, values and critical thinking is still relevant in the 21st century.

You May Like

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs