One need not look far these days to find people skeptical (at best) about the value of higher education. Most of these people particularly question the value of a liberal-arts education, which they view as outdated and elitist. Claiming economic pragmatism, they seek the curtailment or even outright elimination of arts and humanities programs. Liberal arts, they say, are a luxury we can no longer afford, because students who study the liberal arts do not develop the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. This is an absurd and entirely unsubstantiated claim that I will not bother to debunk here (for an excellent takedown of this position, see Brian Rosenberg’s January 30 article in the Huffington Post). Still, absurd though it is, those of us in the sciences may think to let the humanities fight their own corner. What does this have to do with us? we may well ask.
And it’s true: You never hear politicians questioning the value of STEM education. Sure, students may complain about the chemistry class they’re required to take, and everyone loves to hate developmental math, but on a fundamental level most people accept that STEM courses belong in the undergraduate curriculum. People in mathematics, my discipline, are fond of complaining about teaching so-called service courses, but the truth is that we have a kind of job security our colleagues in the humanities could envy. Even the most hardcore of anti-intellectual politicians does not dispute the utility of mathematics, or the necessity of both teaching and learning it. So we’re safe, right? Why should we stick our necks out protecting drama, or music, or women’s studies? Three reasons.
One: If not us, who? Being outside of the disciplines under attack lends us a certain credibility. If we can see that the humanities are valuable, then maybe other people can too. We all know that a broad education, including literature and the arts, makes people better students, better citizens, and yes, better employees. If we are not willing to stand up for the humanities, we might end up somewhere we really don’t want to be, and fast.
Two: We’re not as different as they think. Yes, calculus is one of the great achievements of the human mind, but Hamlet is another. The violin is a third. With apologies to C.P. Snow, humanities versus sciences is a false dichotomy. Both the sciences and the humanities require deep creativity and intellectualism, an ability and desire to use reason, and a willingness to change your mind. When they attack the humanities, they are attacking all of us, they just don’t understand enough science to know it.
When I say I teach math, people are thinking algebra, not set theory, yet it is the deeply abstract questions about things like the nature of the infinite and the limits of logical reasoning that intrigue mathematicians. Doesn’t sound very applied, does it? If the critics of the humanities knew about set theory, they would undoubtedly find it as unworthy of tax dollars as women’s studies. There are plenty of applied questions in mathematics and the sciences, of course, but even those often lack direct applicability to profitable pursuits. It is worth noting that in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, the hedgehog-fox split does not occur along disciplinary lines. The real dichotomy is between respect for human intelligence and creativity, and contempt for it. Everyone I know in the academic community is squarely on the same side of that one.
Three, and most important: It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth. Arts education in particular is frequently called upon to demonstrate that it leads to gains in other areas; test scores, for example. And, in fact, research suggests that arts education does boost test scores (among other things), but the fact is that it shouldn’t have to. Like set theory, singing Handel and writing haiku are ends in themselves because they are integral parts of human culture and we are humans. Knowledge and understanding can, and should, be pursued along many paths. The degradation of certain paths in favor of others that pay better will, eventually, degrade the entire pursuit.
Liberal-arts education has not failed its students, economically or otherwise. If higher education has failed at all, it is in not making its value sufficiently clear to sufficiently many different kinds of people. It is indeed sad that the educations of people like the governors of North Carolina and Pennsylvania have failed so dramatically, but let us not repeat the mistake. Let us in the sciences make sure that those we educate, formally or informally, understand the value of liberal-arts education to an enlightened society. We act as isolationists at our peril.
Kira Hamman teaches mathematics at Pennsylvania State University at Mont Alto.