The Humanities: A Civilizations Perspective

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We have established that English majors can find jobs, with unemployment rates hovering close to their computer science and math peers. We have established that liberal arts majors can earn high salaries with only an undergraduate degree, and are even sought after by the investment banking industry. We have established that philosophy majors have the highest law school acceptance rates, far surpassing pre-professional tracks.  But on a societal level, the consequences of the humanities for the future are largely ignored, drowned out by a swelling push for STEM. As an applied math and economics major, I harbor no grudge against STEM and its initiatives. Rather, I seek to point out the role of the humanities as a linchpin just as crucial to our society as the technical fields.

Think of the books which still now linger in your mind; the books that shaped your consciences and inspired you and challenged you and became a part of you. What will this generation contribute to this canon — build upon the ideas of centuries past, influence the future, so that society may advance not only in the fields of science but also in the realms of ideas? The answer will be determined by how well our students learn about literature and philosophy and history.

Besides their innate value, the humanities are integral for STEM to make true progress in society. We may advance in the fields of biology and be able to clone humans, but not have a nation educated enough about bioethics to determine if we should; we may create weapons powerful enough to topple a dictator, but not understand the people’s culture and history enough to help them rebuild their country; we may further technology for data mining, but not question its impacts on our lives and our futures. Whether the humanities or STEM matter more is irrelevant; what matters is that the value of both is recognized and both are made priorities for education.

Yet, recent educational initiatives threaten to harm the humanities, either neglecting them with the emphasis on STEM or slashing programs and classes. Common Core in particular, regardless of its merits or lack thereof for other subjects, undermines the value of the humanities. At present, Common Core includes no standards or assessments for the humanities and social sciences, only those for reading and math. Facing rigid testing in reading and math, schools have incentive to reallocate time away from the humanities to prepare students for these high-stakes exams. Common Core is not alone in this oversight; reductions in humanities class time to meet No Child Left Behind standards are well documented.

However, the solution to this dilemma is not to develop standards for the humanities and social sciences. Common Core’s central idea of standardization, where every student in the nation learns the same skills in the same grade, is incompatible with these disciplines. While, for example, it is reasonable for each student to at some point take U.S. History, each school has humanities teachers with a range of expertise. Just because every school cannot offer Military History or Anthropology, for instance, does not mean students at a particular school should not benefit from the knowledge of a teacher passionate about the subject. All indications point toward orchestrating standards at the local level, with flexible state or national guidelines. The absence of strict national standards does not mean the absence of national testing. Advanced Placement exams, for example, well known to 2.3 million students nationwide and steadily growing, offer schools the choice of which subjects to offer to which grade levels and offer students the choice of which classes to take, all while providing standardized information about school and student performance.

In one conception, civilization is a spiral staircase, twisting but spiraling upward, revisiting similar places but from a new perspective. To add to the staircase, we want not only scientists and programmers and engineers with technical skills, but we also need humans who can question themselves and their society, with the arsenal of the humanities as inspiration. Seeing a more complete view of the staircase through the lens of the humanities will help our civilization envision how we can build the next stair.

References:

1Weissmann, Jordan. “The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 25 June 2013. Web. 23 July 2015.

2Attwood, Matthew. “Investment Banks Seek Arts Graduates; People Skills in Demand.” MoneyBeat. Wall Street Journal, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 July 2015.

3Wecker, Menachem. “Future Law Students Should Avoid Prelaw Majors, Some Say.” US News. U.S. News & World Report, 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 July 2015.

4Dillon, Sam. “Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2006. Web. 23 July 2015.

5Program Summary Report. Publication. College Board, 2014. Web. 23 July 2015.