Editorial: Student Disciplines; Humanities Lose Their Luster

Sunday, November 10, 2013
We have little doubt that Phil Hanlon, the newly installed president of Dartmouth College and a torchbearer for the liberal arts, can mount a credible defense of the humanities. But his address to the faculty last Monday was apparently not an occasion to do so.

As Valley News staff writer Sarah Brubeck reported, Hanlon’s vision for the institution includes expanding the Thayer School of Engineering and the Tuck School of Business; increasing the number of post-doctoral scholars; promoting opportunities for experiential learning; and hiring professors for multidisciplinary pursuits in such topics as “financial markets.” All well and good, perhaps, though not necessarily reassuring to those who fret about the future of the humanities in higher education. English, history, philosophy, religion, art and other disciplines that explore human nature, culture and creativity are traditional pillars of academe. But, as The New York Times recently reported, they have lost influence as science and technology attract more student attention and far more government research money. Hanlon’s remarks illustrated the ascendancy, or perhaps supremacy, of what’s known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“There’s an overwhelming push from the administration at most universities to build up the STEM fields, both because national productivity depends in part on scientific productivity and because there’s so much federal funding for science,” John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times.

If the Dartmouth humanities faculty felt slighted by Hanlon’s priorities and the direction he hopes to take the college, they didn’t say so publicly. Generally speaking, however, the waning interest in the humanities is cause for much handwringing, and the topic has attracted a lot of attention in recent months, including a commission report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences emphasizing the important public purpose served by the humanities in broadly educating the citizenry.

While the overall percentage of humanities majors — 7 percent — is about the same today as it was in 1985, academicians worry about how to sustain interest in subjects that don’t have an obvious link to the job market. “College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” said Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

You can’t blame students, most of whom leave college in debt, for acting rationally and majoring in fields more likely to lead to decently paid jobs. But you can blame employers, many of whom routinely discount the value of humanities when hiring. Many employers say they endorse the concept of a liberal education, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that banks, consulting firms and tech start-ups, to name just a few, prefer economics, mathematics and computer majors over English, art history and anthropology majors.

It’s a sad commentary on our times that the humanities command so little respect, and that educators, public intellectuals and others are obliged to justify the value of languages, literature and history. A liberal education should explore not only the fluctuations of financial markets and the mysteries of the double helix but also the lessons of the Trojan War and Ahab’s vengeful quest for the great white whale. The humanities provide the intellectual framework for meaning and foster an understanding of the human condition. That ought to be worth something.