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Why study Humanities?

General education woes
12:35 AM July 07, 2015

 (Part 2)

Sometimes, even those who work in education forget what education is for.  Hence, I find it satisfying to handle a Foundations of Education course now and then to rework in my mind the implications of the far-reaching, wide-ranging philosophies of education.

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I also scout for good books that provoke critical thinking about debates on education. At a second-hand international book fair some years ago, these two titles caught my attention:  “Excellence without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education” written by Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College; and “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life” authored by Anthony T. Kronman, a Law professor at Yale University.

Both titles focus on the humanities.

The back cover endorsement in Kronman’s book sounds this warning: “Just when we need them most, the humanities have relinquished their role at the heart of liberal education—(i.e.) helping students reflect on what makes life worth living” (MJ Sandel).

Lewis, on the other hand, laments that the humanities have been marginalized because science and globalization are driving curriculum reviews. “We have forgotten that we teach Humanities to help students understand what it means to be human.”

Life worth living

To be human. To make life worth living. Are these what we can learn from the humanities?

Stanford Humanities Center describes the humanities “as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world… Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.” (italics mine)

We understand ourselves by the stories we tell; we understand our world by the histories that are told. We learn empathy by the books we read; we are inspired by the films we watch. We express our thoughts and feelings by the arts we create. We think aloud what we value in our daily conversations.

The renowned scientist EO Wilson believes that the humanities is the “natural history of culture, and (it is) our most private and precious heritage.”

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Lack of interest

But since a decade or two ago, students have not been interested to major in Philosophy, or Literature, Religion, Art, Music or History.

What company would hire a philosopher? Who cares whether a column is Doric, Ionic or Corinthian? Can Socrates help in marketing or Shakespeare in communication?

Hasn’t “impression management” taken over eloquence in interview?  Isn’t every blogger a writer? Why should writers need training and knowledge of the humanities?

We need IT (information technology) people; we need call center agents; we need nurses who can apply abroad.

When my daughter Crystal decided to major in Anglo-American Literature at the University of the Philippines (UP) in 2001, many of her high school classmates worried about her job prospects.

They belonged to the “star” class section, so her fellow graduates were admitted to top schools without any problem, but most of them enrolled in the Sciences, IT, Economics and premedical courses.

There she was with her love for William Shakespeare and JRR Tolkien, getting into a field in a department that was constantly at risk of cancellation of classes due to lack of students.

Worried, she consulted with her mentor, Dr. Judy Ick, who assured her that classes for Literature majors will continue, with or without the minimum number of students.

My daughter Crystal graduated in time—after four years, with magna cum laude honors—then went on to Sydney for her master’s in Creative Writing and she was among the first in her class to find a job that really matched her interest and her field of studies—teaching Literature and Creative Writing and loving it, while publishing stories on the sides.

Still, since that time, interest in Literature and the humanities has remained low.

Global picture

The UP held its graduation recently. The numbers of graduates from different majors and colleges reflected the trend of which courses are popular and which are not. For instance, there were 62 graduates for Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, but only 12 for Bachelor of Arts (BA) in English Studies. There were 115 who earned their BA in Business Administration, compared to 24 with BA in Philosophy. The College of Engineering had 668 graduates while the College of Fine Arts had only 173.

Decline in the humanities is not merely a local phenomenon. In the United States, the prospect is not any brighter.

New York Times (Oct. 30, 2013) reported that at Stanford University, some 45 percent of the undergraduate faculty are clustered around the humanities but the humanities only account for 15 percent of students.

Nationwide, in the United States, Humanities majors hover around 7 percent.

At Cornell University, it was reported that between 2006 and 2011, the number of History majors dropped 49 percent and the number of English majors, 37 percent.

At Yale University, the number of English majors plummeted more than 60 percent between 1991 and 2012. (International Herald Tribune, July 5, 2013)

With the global economic competition that rewards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), students are certainly flocking to these courses of high employability.

Practically, college education has become attached to the job market.

But is job preparation the only reason for college education?

Utilitarian or intellectual

In his book “The Disciplined Mind,” Howard Gardner listed nine pairs of polarities where the pendulums of educational debates were swinging constantly from one end to another. One of the nine is whether education should be for utilitarian outcomes or for intellectual growth for its own sake. Gardner considers himself to side with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Sitting in Gardner’s classes many years ago, that was exactly my impression of what education meant to him. His lectures demonstrated a wide range of disciplines; his books were appended with music scores (he plays piano at concert level); his knowledge of visual arts was as impressive. It is no wonder that his reach of audience and influence has been extensive.

While Gardner expressed his viewpoints for one side against the other side in eight of the polarities he mentioned, he admits that he finds himself squarely in the middle on the question of whether education should showcase technology or highlight human dimension.

He says, “New technologies hold tremendous promise, but they must be seen as means rather than ends.”

It is, therefore, imperative for colleges to think and rethink how to achieve the balance between Science and the Humanities and to envision what the end of education should be.

Thinking for a good life

The end for education, according to Plato, is to learn how to live one’s life.

The humanities offers students varied tools for thought. It teaches them how to understand and analyze complex ideas and to develop the capacity to frame their questions and arguments. But, more than that, Humanities students seek to understand why and how they ought to lead their lives.

In an interview, Bracken Darrell, chief executive officer of Logitech, explains why he hires English majors in his company.

“The best CEO and leaders are extremely good writers and have this ability to articulate and verbalize what they are thinking… The older I get, the more I realize the power of words, and the power of words in making you think.” (Washington Post, Aug. 8, 2013)

Yes, you may still get a good job with your degree in one of the courses in the Humanities but, more than that, the humanities will get you thinking about a good life.

The writer is a professor at the UP College of Education. E-mail her at [email protected]

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