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Cherishing Study in the Humanities

The pendemic, and now the bean counters, are coming for the humanities. 

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Recent news reports have asserted that students in the fields of language, the arts, the social sciences and history have come through the pandemic with less enthusiasm for their studies, at least in relation to those in STEM sciences and vocational majors like accounting. But can there be any surprise that the pandemic’s disruption of learning communities would take a big toll on learning that is usually collective, intimate, and interactive?  The humanities thrive on direct engagement. Now it appears that the inadvertent theft of these forms by COVID has been devastating.  As with a recent piece in the Washington Post, bean counters seem to be taking particular pleasure in seeing American universities become trade schools.

But surely it will take time for the wounds of COVID isolation to heal. We have been missing what was once the vast array of classroom discussions, plays, concerts, and travel that survived, if at all, mostly in the truncated form of video facsimiles. Of course, the first task through this pandemic was to save lives and keep individuals healthy. But for those Americans who were on track to delve into deeper understandings–through live performance, the discussion of history and ideas and personal mentoring–the inadvertent loss of direct engagement has predictably yielded greater caution. It has lowered the horizons of students to “focus on courses that are practical.”

The humanities—fields of inquiry ranging from history to languages to literature and the arts—thrive when open and eager minds can share the same space. It’s our birthright to be with others. For students this means being in the presence of a wonderful instructor in any field that creates insight about what is possible and what’s at stake within human communities. The humanities remind us where we have been and where aspirations made visible can still take us.

Seminar Bard College Berlin 2013

Living among a community of scholars offers the gift of shared experience with perhaps 10 or 15 students, all beginning the voyage of a semester-long conversation about the work of groundbreaking creators of ideas.  We may never get a better chance to be connected to big ideas that that matter than participating as student with a writer or thinker with revelatory insights. There may be ways to electronically simulate a meeting of minds. But most of these efforts are more performative than enlightening. Communication works better when folks share the same space and time, and when small things like momentary non-fluency or uncombed hair doesn’t matter.

Disturbingly, stretched parents are having second thoughts about spending money on any undergraduate curriculum that offers a palette of experiences larger than is required to do a single job. Their concerns are abetted by nearsighted reporting in our media, with headlines like “College Majors With The Lowest Unemployment” or “College Majors With The Worst Return On Investment,” and the Post’s recent “The most Regretted College Majors.” So we have the pandemic-hastened conversion of higher education into vocational training.  It is sad to see universities close programs in writing, philosophy, performance studies, history, foreign languages,  music, dance, theater, journalism and rhetoric. Never mind that they have missed the more subtle point that a degree in history or philosophy may cultivate wonderful skills needed for innovative work. Writer Julie Schumacher reminds us what her English students can accomplish: “Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express.”

In these times, we should worry when electoral losers brood over dark ways to return to power.  Weakening the humanities is akin to disarming voters who need to put up a full defense of democratic values.  Among many other things, they would benefit by knowing why Plato and his great student Aristotle parted ways on the usefulness of public opinion. We can’t afford to not have the humanities, which collectively help us understand why we should want to be part of a great and ethical society.

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