Saturday, February 28, 2009

Man's inhumanity to humanities

The parlous state of the economy is only the news hook for this story.

University humanities departments have been suffering for a long time, whether times are fat or slim. My sister the English professor makes sure I don't miss that fact, but I'm sure the New York Times has previously reported on it, too. In this mercantile and mercenary age, learning for the sake of learning, which is in fact learning for the sake of being a better and more fully realized and capable human being, is just so squishy and old-fashioned.

An intemperate question: If we're failing to educate young adults in the humanities and we're failing to teach them enough math and science for the technology we have and that that we want to have, what are we teaching them?

My career in private industry suggests this answer:

  • Not enough writing to be clear on any topic - often not enough to be grammatical
  • Not enough math to understand the limits of business metrics - particularly not enough statistics to grasp the fuzziness and error built into the firmest looking number
  • Not enough literacy to connect on much beyond superficialities
Instead, we're teaching spreadsheets and PowerPoints - oh, and instant blind assent - as if they were business. But marketing, plenty of marketing, in our perpetual attempt to convince customers that what we're offering is actually better than it really is.

We've lost sight as a society of vital cultural values such as citizenship, consciousness of the impact of our own society, and empathy for one another. Reading a novel won't directly make a better widget, so many of us won't consider doing it, as if all there is to being human is grasping and getting. Perhaps this is why so many Americans have abased themselves so far as to favor the instruments of torture in Bushist policy.

But I have a humanities degree, so what do I know?

Click image for CCA 2.0 license from Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment:

BB Janz said...

As an associate professor of humanities (yup, that's my actual title), I spend a lot of my time giving my students talking points to their parents and anyone else who thinks what they do is pointless. I got tired of saying the same thing all the time, so I put up a page. I'm sure it won't convince Stanley Fish, or the technocrats out there, but my students at least feel like they can pursue what they love, and then find ways to make it relevant. And, funny thing, they usually do.