The Humanities: Supporting Life, or on Life Support?

James Tissot, “In the Louvre” c.1885

These days, those of us holding sheepskins in the humanities have much in common with print newspapers: our impending extinction has been heralded more times than we can count.

It’s true that humanities degrees are on the decline; some universities have made the unfortunate decision to eliminate certain foreign languages from their offerings. This trend was clear to me during my own undergraduate days, when the University of Pittsburgh was obviously devoting more funding to medical and scientific departments (as well as dormitories and arenas for athletes) than it was to languages, the arts, or philosophy. The translation certification program I’d hoped to complete as an undergraduate was cut while I was in the thick of taking prerequisites, and instruction in lesser-taught languages was tottering on the edge of oblivion.

Pitt is now most famous for its medical graduates, but its most famous building, the Cathedral of Learning, is still a stronghold of the humanities. It was in that building that I took classes in writing, French, history and anthropology.

To me, the humanities are so named because these subjects are what make human beings interesting and educated – somehow one isn’t really human without being grounded in these areas. I yearn for the time when being a truly educated man or woman included speaking two or more languages (and reading/writing several more dead ones); having some ability in the fine arts such as music or painting; and having read a fairly standard repertoire of literature, including plays and poetry. Studying the humanities is truly learning for the love of learning.

While I’m hoping the downward trend will reverse itself, the rational part of my brain understands that “learning for the love of learning” will continue its slide, to be replaced by accounting, business and medical majors. I’m afraid what was already in decline has been set on a landslide by the economic downturn. Just about any bachelor’s degree in the humanities has to be followed by graduate education if there’s any money to be made, and usually, once that money arrives, it won’t be plentiful.

Part of the issue with humanities degrees is the fact that many hiring managers do not recognize them for what they are: writing degrees. I may not have majored or minored in English composition, but my education in the humanities taught me how to structure an argument, persuade my reader that my point of view is justified, and craft an engaging bit of prose. Take it from this French and history of art & architecture major who had to go to graduate school for professional writing to convince employers she was qualified for writing jobs: it’s time to educate the people who took those accounting, business and medical courses about what they missed – and what is often sitting right across the table from them.

Luckily, some prominently-placed editorials have rallied ’round the cause lately.

“Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write,” wrote David Brooks in The New York Times in June. “No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.”

That article hung on my office door for several months. I am surrounded by people with computer science or information technology degrees who do not necessarily possess the skills Brooks mentions.

Studying the humanities makes one curious about the world – at least, it made me curious about the world. I like to think I share a kindred spirit with the generations of “accomplished women” who came before me and spoke French, devoured any book they got their hands on and made scrapbooks. And any arts administrator worth his or her salt will acknowledge that study of the humanities is essential in cultivating the next generation of arts patrons and appreciators.

It’s my hope that future generations will be able to indulge this “old-fashioned” curiosity and not have to quash an interest in mythology or iambic pentameter because Uncle Sam is in intensive care.

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