Friday, November 1, 2013

The Humanities

Pity the humanities. Enrollment in post-secondary humanities programmes is down to around 7% of the total student population in the U.S. (in Canada, it's only slightly higher if memory serves) and here is a nice NYT article (if one can use the word 'nice' in this context) that details some of the current discussion on the state of the humanities. Of which there is much discussion... From the end of the article comes this analysis which I wish had received more attention throughout:

But for students worrying about their own future, Shakespeare can seem an obstacle to getting on with their lives.
“Students who are anxious about finishing their degree, and avoiding debt, sometimes see the breadth requirements as getting in their way,” said Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.
Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.
“We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors,” he said.
 This coheres with an observation that was made by Stefan Collini in his book, What are Universities for? a year or two ago and which I quoted in a recent paper on the relationship between Christian faith and the university:
“it is not the subject-matter itself that determines whether something is, at a particular moment, classed as ‘useful’ or ‘useless’. Almost any subject can fall under either description.”  (Collini, 55)
In other words: Theology, English, Philosophy and Linguistics can launch a career in any number of fields, because the skills acquired in these disciplines has to do with deepening the general knowledge, perception and honing of insights that will benefit the individual generally speaking. It is for this reason why we must push back against over-specialization, especially in the humanities, because it is that circumstance that the humanities would loses their collective humanity, and therefore their timeless relevance.

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