The Liberal Arts education: A recipe for poverty?

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In today's New York Times, Patricia Cohen explored the growing perception among university students and administrators that the humanities are of questionable value in a world where technological advancement is the measure of progress and economic stability. As she noted, many universities are reducing or eliminating their humanities classes, and students are increasingly moving (or getting pushed) toward more useful, vocational majors.

When I was a university instructor, I regularly had to deal with this perception, and it often reminded me of a scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral. One character, explaining why he didn't go to college, states "When you're working in the money markets, what use are the novels of Wordsworth?" A portion of my brain, which I call "the asshole English teacher" always sneered at this remark. After all, Wordsworth wrote poems, not novels, and if this boor had gone to college, he'd damn well know that!

However, underneath my snotty response, this question always bothered me. My university was focused on training engineers, which meant that my classes were filled with students who thought that English was a complete waste of time. Of course, I could understand; when I was a student, I felt the same way about Astronomy, Geology, Math, Statistics, and all the other scientific/technical classes.

This disdain for the humanities went all the way to the top of the university. My school's administration was dominated by former engineers, which meant that the humanities often had to justify their continuing existence, either explicitly in meetings or implicitly through standardization of our curricula. This perspective worked its way down to every teacher, and we were provided with statistics and quotes that we were instructed to cite if our students questioned why they were being forced to read a poem or write a paper.

The basic idea was that, while the sciences power the future, the liberal arts explain it; thus, even as the one keeps the world moving, the other gives it meaning and purpose. While this explanation is very satisfying for a philosophically-minded professor, it is a tough sell for monitor-tanned college freshmen whose horizons are fixed on Cadkey and programming.

I tried a different tack. Rather than telling my students why the humanities would give their lives richness and meaning, I taught them that language and psychology, history and sociology were tools that they needed to master if they ever hoped to sell their ideas. I tried to show that an awareness of audience makes it easier to promote a product or program, that an understanding of culture makes it possible to work in a culture. Most importantly, I taught them that logic and elegant design extend beyond the laboratory, and that their words were, in many ways, no different from the lines of code that they manipulated.

As the humanities continues to try to justify its existence, and as universities begin planning to cut them out, the focus shouldn't be on creating perfect little Lord Byrons and Emily Dickensons. Rather, higher education should set its sights on people like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein: technological geniuses who could eloquently verbalize the wonder of their discoveries. Just as my astronomy, geology, and math classes gave me raw knowledge that I still use, English, history, and psychology classes gave me the tools to make that knowledge relevant. Until science perfects telepathy, words and culture are the building blocks of our communications, and an ability to use them is priceless.

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