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Humanities Fight to Survive in High-Tech World

Liberal arts colleges face declining enrollment

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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.

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