The place of humanities in higher education was debated again last week in The Japan Times. I thought I’d summarise the main points and add a few of my own (having had the kind of broad education that the authors argue we need more of). In the United States top universities are shifting from a broad and liberal education to degrees directly tied to an occupation. “Elsewhere in the world,” according to Pope and Tang, “there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity”. This comes from demands from employers for “soft skills” like communication, critical thinking and working with diverse groups. It’s good to see that employers, at least, recognise that “the biggest innovations come from graduates who are well-rounded”.
In Europe, they say, “where for centuries students have jumped straight into specialized fields and studied little else, recent changes have pushed back specialization, making more room for general education”. I guess that they don’t count the UK as part of Europe. My own experience at university in the 1980s was that British universities really valued the arts and humanities – teaching students to think rather than cram in vocationally oriented information. My own law degree administered a massive dose of philosophy – something for which I am enduringly grateful.
In Africa and the Middle East, say Pope and Tang, “experiments are moving away from a relentlessly narrow education tradition” and “China is breaking down the rigid disciplinary walls that have long characterized its higher education system”.
They ask, in the shadow of the Great Recession, what kind of education will best drive economic growth? They argue for a broad style of education – the kind that produces the “magic” that helped launch companies like Apple and Google – making the important point that (in a fast-changing world) we don’t know what kind of jobs will be out there when todays new students graduate. Humanities and Liberal Arts subjects produce graduates who can think creatively and critically, who can communicate and who can write. They are the graduates who will have the adaptability to meet whatever the future brings. Vocationally specific, knowledge-based courses could produce students whose skills are out of date before they even get their first job. Talking of jobs, Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple, is often cited on his call for the marriage of liberal arts, humanities and technology the secret to Apple products “that make our hearts sing.”
The pyramid has always been powerful – as a compositional device in painting, as an architectural structure, and for theoretical frameworks. A broad first degree provides the most solid foundation on which to build – whatever direction you want to go in. Teach students to think, learn, communicate and write, and you give them tools for life and work in a changing world. If they go on to learn vocational skills, they’ll learn them quickly and thoughtfully, arriving in the workplace equipped to solve problems and make a difference. In an overpopulated world on an unsustainable path, we need to nurture innovative thinkers who can see the big picture. As Jonathan Becker (vice president for international affairs at Bard College in New York) says, “narrow boundaries of disciplines are not the answer to modern world problems.”
Having read the article, my mind wanders off on its own, remembering how few students I’ve met in the last 30 years who knew what career they wanted when they enrolled in university. I’m also recalling how many of my friends have had multiple career changes, myself included. Doing a law degree taught me that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Fortunately its philosophy content, and my earlier studies in English literature and French, gave me a good foundation for an adaptable career path that has ultimately proved rewarding.
Yet in the USA and Australia the humanities are taking some hard hits. Pope and Tang tell us that in the States literature, philosophy and other humanities have suffered from low enrollments and “American politicians are encouraging the trend of practicality in higher education. The governors of Florida and North Carolina, for example, have pushed to shift state funding away from liberal arts subjects to programs that lead more directly to jobs.” It looks like more short-term thinking by politicians to me. Perhaps they can show that narrow vocational courses get graduates into jobs faster after graduation, but they have no idea what happens to them later on (after all, that’s beyond the next election, in Never Never Land). How well do these graduates fare once they get the job? Not so well. According to Pope and Tang “a recent employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found 93 percent reported that capacities to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems were more important than an undergraduate major.” In Australia I keep hearing about the closure of University art departments and the axing of whole disciplines, like art history – a discipline that encompasses more critical thinking, history, science and philosophy than any other.
Of course we need skilled workers. As always, it’s a question of balance. Pope and Tang talk about our need for leaders, “curious, confident risk-takers”, and people “who’ve wrestled with subjects like history, politics and justice”. They quote Dutch academic Hans Adriaansens who says, “A narrow degree may misfire… but a broader degree gives graduates the tools to reinvent themselves”, concluding, “You can build a high mountain on a very broad base.” If he’d had a broader education he might have quoted Eleanor Roosevelt who said “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.”
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