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RS36 - Why Should We Care About Teaching the Humanities?

Release date: June 5, 2011

Universities all around the country are closing programs in the humanities, at least in part because of the increasing widespread attitude that higher education should be treated as a business, and that programs that bring in money in the form of high tuitions from students and external grants are to be prioritized. SUNY Albany, for example, announced in the Fall of 2010 that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. So, what is the point of studying languages, literature, history or philosophy? Can we, and perhaps more importantly, should we quantify their value? Can we have universities that focus only on science and marketable skills?

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:

Massimo's pick: "The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding"

Reader Comments (12)

I think there is also a difference among the humanities in terms of skills that are perhaps more marketable or desirable to employers. For example, a major in Italian may provide fluency in Italian, and it is easy to make that apparent. The claim of "critical thinking" that may be obtained through an education in philosophy is harder to demonstrate.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLogan Wyatt Cole

What more evidence for the need for broad training in critical thinking does anyone need than the conversation now taking place about (the issue du jour) Congressman Weiner? I was just watching the Dylan Ratigan show on MSBC, and I think they were trying--actually, really trying--to have a real discussion about its implications for modern values. But they just seem to be flailing around in quicksand.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjx

Really enjoyed the podcast this week - the thought experiment comment was something that really hit home.

What I was wondering though, was how much such textual criticism is integral to the ability to derive meaning and understanding from literature? When Julia was reading out the editorial (~32:00) I thought that it was written sarcastically. The question I have is what difference would formal study make over reading and absorbing such works of our own volition? For example, I've never formally studied Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, but I think I was able to pull out some of the meaning that Philip K Dick was trying to impart. Likewise my read through of Nonsense On Stilts was not done under the supervision of a philosopher, nor in the context of university education in the philosophy of science, but I hope I was able to pull something away from it as a layperson trying to wrestle with the content.

June 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKel

I think awareness of other cultures is extremely important, but cultural anthropology would be a MUCH better fit for studying such a thing.

June 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEugene

Now that finals are over, my daughter is packing up and getting ready to come home from her freshman year at a well-regarded liberal arts college. She had chosen the school because of its record for excellence in the sciences (especially its number of women faculty and female students who go on to advanced degrees in their field) and with the intention to study physics and astronomy.

During winter quarter she became enthralled with her Introduction to Classics course, dropped her Russian class (excellent choice) in exchange for ancient Greek, and dropped physics for a philosophy class. Now she is thoroughly entrenched in the classics and history departments and, though she won't declare a major for another year, feels pretty certain she wants to pursue classical studies and archaeology.

I say all this to explain why I so enjoyed this episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast. I emailed her a link and suggest she listen to it while packing up her dorm room this week. Do I think she would have had a more secure career path becoming an astrophysicist than am Athenian scholar? Certainly. Do I think there's value in the education she'll get studying dead languages and ancient texts? Without a doubt. Have I tried to dissuade her from her new found passion and steer her back into something "practical"? Not a bit. Am I nervous about her prospects for long-term employment? You betcha. But whether or not she ever lands that coveted tenure-track position, I'm confident that she will find a way to apply her education, find her way in the world, and ultimately lead a meaningful life, however one measures that intangible.

Thanks for a great show.

June 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan

Well if you are waiting until college to study Shakespeare or Moliere, you have a long way to go ... It would make sense to study them in middle school and high school and if you are going to graduate from an engineering or science program without taking an elective in languages, business or philosophy, that is a huge deficiency ... Most engineers and scientists that I know actually are extremely well verse in contemporary moral issues, politics, languages, music, dance etc ...

The approach to education particularly in the U.S. ( business oriented) vs Europe or Africa is a very interesting and true point. That is actually the essence of the entire conversation.

Voury Ignegongba

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVoury Ignegongba

Loved this episode as I've been discussing this topic lately with several friends. A recent speaker at an Ignite Phoenix event gave an excellent 5 minute talk on Humanities in the 21st Century, where he argued (very eloquently) that the discussion and analysis of literature and the humanities is enormously valuable in being able to apply problem solving and reason to scientific fields.

Very much recommend his talk as it is short and to the point of this discussion. I'm also going to pass this podcast on to the speaker to see if he has some perspective to add directly.

Thanks for the consistently excellent discussions!

June 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Moriarty

Listening to this discussion on Dante and how to measure the value of humanities I was struck by a thought: if scientists were better storytellers, we might all be better off. The story they have to tell is so often left to that most science-illiterate of beasts, the media.

June 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Do we have evidence that merely taking one or two courses in critical thinking skills has any long-lasting effect? In fact, do we have any evidence that merely taking one or two courses in anything has long-lasting effect? My own observation is that until someone has a Masters in some subject, he really hasn't integrated that subject matter into the way he thinks about the world.

July 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

As a poet and autodidact, I have discovered that humanities studies have prepared my mind for science, I have a more complete and fulfilled worldview due to learning both. Carl Sagan and Edgar Allan Poe are both heroes of mine for instance lol. Americans have this sickening obsession with "pragmatism" which (speaking for a more informed and democratic society) ironically is NOT pragmatic.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShinken del Fénix

I believe the young lady misses the point about fiction. Fiction contains truths that plant seed-bombs of thought in our brains. Sometimes fiction presents information in a way that is heartily devoured and sometimes presents mental problems in an indirect and distant way. ( Good Science Fiction is a perfect example of wrestling with moral and existential problems and so on)

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShinken del Fénix
Universities definitely need to retain their Philosophy Departments so that students learn how to think and argue. However, while many of the Humanities and Arts such as Literature, History, Sculpture, Art History, Music, Drama, Film and so forth may enrich a person's life, people can study them, learn them, and enjoy them perfectly well outside the university. The University should focus on STEM, Business, Law, and Medicine since these most immediately and obviously add to our public welfare.

Have to disagree with Massimo that "90%" of what science students learn has no use. A plant biologist does need to learn the chemical basis of photosynthesis since this biochemical process provides the basis for all plant energy. Without this understanding plant biologists will not have the tools necessary to properly comprehend any number of more complex biological processes that depend upon biochemical energy. Learning how plants make energy for themselves leads us to understand how disruptions in energy production can change plant biology. It also allows us to differentiate disruptions in energy production with the effects some other biological process or disruption. Even for someone who goes on to specialize in bacteriology, knowledge of plant photosynthesis has usefulness. A bacteriologist can benefit from a comparison of photosynthetic bacteria to higher plants, an investigation into how pathogenic bacteria disrupt plant photosynthesis, or simply benefit from having a broad background in biology such that the bacteriologist could decide to pursue a side project in botany if she or he so pleases.

Some people might dispute the claim that watching "Jersey Shore" for 12 hours a day constitutes a "low pleasure", not due to any lack of lowness, but due to the lack of any pleasure. The very fact that we refer to Arts and Humanities as "pleasures", and not as skills, indicates their inappropriateness as core concerns of the modern university. The modern university should serve primarily to instill useful skills in its students so that those students can find employment in the real world.

Standardized tests can and do accurately test skills such as mathematics and critical thinking. Student scores on standardized tests correlate well with their grades in math class and history class. Some standardized tests do also include written argument sections.

Good writing comes from good thinking. Students learn how to think when they study philosophy, but not so much literature. In addition to STEM, students need mostly philosophy, economics, finance, law, and some history.
January 31, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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