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Why we still need to study the humanities in a STEM world


It is common to hear today, in the era of big data and STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — that liberal arts degrees are, well, relatively worthless. What is someone with a degree in English literature going to do with it, besides teach?

The question isn’t new. A decade ago, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics magazine published an article titled “What Can I Do With My Liberal Arts Degree?” which starts with this: “What are you going to do with a degree in that? Do you want to be a teacher?”

Since then, private and public pushes to increase STEM education have given rise to new concerns about the value of a liberal arts education — as well as arguments about why it is incredibly valuable, even to people going into STEM fields. A new book by George Anders titled “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education,” says:

Curiosity, creativity, and empathy aren’t unruly traits that must be reined in to ensure success. Just the opposite. The human touch has never been more essential in the workplace than it is today. You don’t have to mask your true identity to get paid for your strengths. You don’t need to apologize for the supposedly impractical classes you took in college or the so-called soft skills you have acquired. The job market is quietly creating thousands of openings a week for people who can bring a humanist’s grace to our rapidly evolving high-tech future.

And it makes this point:

The more we automate the routine stuff, the more we create a constant low-level hum of digital connectivity, the more we get tangled up in the vastness and blind spots of big data, the more essential it is to bring human judgment into the junctions of our digital lives.

Yet fewer students are studying the liberal arts than they did a few decades ago. A recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, through its Humanities Indicators project, found that the number of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities that were earned in 2015, the last year for which there is data, was down nearly 10 percent from three years earlier.

Here’s a new piece on the humanities — what they are and why they are important — by Gerald Greenberg, senior associate dean of  academic affairs; humanities; and curriculum, instruction and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. Greenberg is a linguistics expert who teaches courses in Russian and whose interests include Russian and Slavic linguistics as well as syntactic theory. He has published many articles and essays on a variety of topics, including areas such as stress placement, the syntax of various non-finite constructions, case marking and language change.

By Gerald Greenberg

The value of a college education has long been debated. Some question an education that doesn’t explicitly provide training in a job skill — a criticism aimed at the humanities — while others push back, noting that employers increasingly are seeking the problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities that these majors bring to their jobs. Yet there are more important reasons for studying subjects within the humanities — such as philosophy, history, literature, religion, art, music, and language — and we ignore them at our own peril.

A liberal education is a cohesive collection of experiences, each providing its own unique contribution to the enlightenment of its practitioners.  Typically, a liberal arts education involves the study of the natural sciences (including mathematics), the social sciences, and the humanities. (The natural sciences and math are frequently associated with STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — and not considered to be part of a liberal education, even though they are.)

A typical college curriculum requires students to sample fields in each subject. Within the sciences, one can learn about what happens when tiny particles collide, which can open the window into the universe. Within the social sciences, one can learn about how resources are used by people and companies, which can lead to an understanding of how the economy might develop. Within the humanities, one can learn another language, which can open the window into a new culture, a new worldview.

Many other examples exist, but the point is that it is only through engaging in the thinking processes practiced in these areas that one can be exposed to various ways of thinking, analyzing, and questioning. The experiences gained from studying in different fields may be qualitatively different, but they are all vital pieces of the Tao of the liberal arts, and are all equally important.

What is the Tao of the liberal arts? As I wrote in this piece, understanding the liberal arts is comparable to understanding the Tao, the source of everything in Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophical system that explains why things are the way they are and why things happen the way they do. The liberal arts offer knowledge and the cultivation of habits of mind that allow graduates to mature into successful, productive members of society who can appreciate others, experience and embrace the notion of empathy, and seek lifelong learning.

Yet while popularity in areas such as economics or neuroscience continues to grow, interest in humanistic topics is moving just as quickly in the opposite direction. Many assert the primacy of the STEM fields, while for humanistic studies, politicians belittle them, parents urge their children to avoid them, and students choose them as majors less and less.

Many defenders of the humanities emphasize the pragmatic or practical value of studying the humanities disciplines, and their arguments are good ones. Articles and studies describe how employers seek graduates who can think critically and write clearly, both by-products of studying the humanities.

Nevertheless, while there seems to be little problem defining or identifying fields in the areas of science and technology, both supporters and detractors of the humanities have difficulty defining the humanities or agreeing on a definition that encompasses them all.

One approach to defining the humanities involves lists: literature, philosophy, foreign language, etc. However, this not only fails to provide a definition but sometimes sparks disagreements about which areas fall within the humanities. More general definitions provide further insight into what the humanities are, but they can be confusing and lead people to conclude they are irrelevant, overly simple, not valuable, and not worthy of serious study. Some definitions indicate the humanities are disciplines that study human culture or examine the human condition.  Such terms, too, become open to broad and varied interpretations, which can easily lead to confusion.

Rather than defining the fields within humanities, we can try to explain what study in the humanities does. We might say fields within the humanities study and analyze artifacts that are created by human beings, such as literature, music, art, etc. We might say the humanities help us to analyze and grapple with complex moral issues, help us understand what goes on inside of us, that is, show us what it means to be a human being. In reaction to such definitions, however, the nonbelievers reject the need to study the humanities; after all, they are human beings, they grapple with complex issues pretty much on a daily basis.

Through studying the humanities, one has the opportunity to get to know oneself and others better, the opportunity to become better able to understand and grapple with complex moral issues, the complexities and intricacies of humanity.

When you take courses in any humanities discipline, you are using different methods to learn about individuals, including yourself, and groups of peoples. You examine relationships and feelings, the feelings of others, as well as your own feelings. You develop empathy and an appreciation for others that can help address difficult situations, personal and professional.

The ability to process information and to deal with difficult situations is important to everyone just to get through everyday life. It is also important for helping to deal with contemporary global issues at local, national, and international levels. Mathematics, the sciences, engineering, and technology are certainly useful, but the humanities provide another way of viewing issues, and better decisions are made when diverse opinions and ideas are considered.

Leaders and decision-makers who are able to employ a broader, more diverse range of ideas and knowledge will be better able to run businesses and governments and react to difficult situations as they develop and arise. We see time and time again, however, that a lack of appreciation of the humanity involved in any situation can lead to undesirable results.

The value of the humanities can only be fully appreciated by experiencing and knowing them. In response to the question: “What are the humanities?” University of Amsterdam Professor Rens Bod noted, “It is like the notion of ‘time’ in St. Augustine: if you don’t ask, we know, but if you ask, we are left empty-handed.”

Therefore, it isn’t so important to define the humanities, or what field is or isn’t part of the humanities; what’s important is what studying a humanities discipline does for the person experiencing it. Studying a humanities field involves moving beyond the search for the immediate and pragmatic; it opens one to the examination of the entirety of the human condition and encourages one to grapple with complex moral issues ever-present in life. It encourages reflection and provides one with an appreciation and empathy for humanity. This is why critical thinking done in the humanities goes beyond problem solving.

Even if we cannot agree on what they are, the humanities are an important part of the way. Given the state of the country and the world today, they are more important than ever.

You can also read:

What the ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal arts’ actually means

The Tao of the liberal arts