The New Republic posted a little forum yesterday under the title “Do Humans Still Need to Study the Humanities?” The editors asked four former presidents of major institutions to answer the question. All of them state their commitment to humanities instruction and their regret that the fields have become marginal in recent years.

But their endorsements, ironically, signal one reason for the decline. Here is the nut of each one.

“Whatever happened to the recognition that a university education has at least three purposes: helping one understand who they are and what excites and motivates them; helping understand one’s relationship to the greater world; and, also, becoming prepared for a job.” –Bernie Machen, University of Florida

“It is clear that to thrive in a society where they may have up to six different careers, business and STEM graduates need also to be curious and creative, to be critical thinkers and good communicators.” –Jim Barker, Clemson University

“The failure to incorporate studies in the liberal arts and humanities, along with STEM education, will deprive the next generation of students the critical thinking skills and context necessary to address the challenges they will face in the future.” –Charles Steger, Virginia Polytechnic Institute

“Employers send a consistent message about what they look for in a college-educated employee: the ability to write clearly, speak persuasively, analyze data effectively, work in diverse groups, and understand the competitive global knowledge environment.

“These characteristics are all nurtured and tested in a purposeful liberal arts education.” –Kevin Reilly, University of Wisconsin

The problem is simple. None of these campus leaders singles out the content of the humanities as the focus. Only President Reilly mentions a name, George Bernard Shaw, and he rightly ridicules the infusion of “contemporary popular culture” in the Western canon. But as his final quotation shows, that emphasis gives way to what the other three presidents highlight: the cognitive benefits of humanistic study.

The humanities bolster critical thinking, it is said; they instill curiosity and creativity and flexibility. Those mental dispositions match the needs of the twenty-first-century workplace, casting the humanities as superb job preparation.

No surprises here. These defenses of the humanities are routine, and have been for years, but they don’t seem to have worked. We could rehearse the logical replies, which include: 

  • Scientific method is just as powerful an instrument of critical thinking as literary interpretation. 
  • Anthropology and other social sciences can involve just as much non-quantifiable inquiry as English and Film do. 
  • If the humanities implant such superior thinking skills, then we should expect literature professors to demonstrate a more creative sensibility and “rangy mind” (Reilly’s term) than math and chemistry professors. But . . . 

Instead, however, think of the poverty of these endorsements this way. If you can’t make a case for a discipline on the basis of the actual objects studied by that discipline, it’s doomed. The field needs to have confidence in the things it takes as its subject matter. Apparently, though, the figures in the forum don’t believe that great novels and paintings and historical events are sufficient to justify the humanities. They turn to instrumental values instead, what studying those things will do to students’ cognition. 

Unfortunately, even if true, those affirmations will not increase the popularity of humanities courses. What sophomore will be drawn to a course in Renaissance sculpture because it will enhance her critical thinking skills? 

Only the actual materials will sustain the humanities, but we have to believe in them enough to say so. We need more conviction than this. We need to be able to say to incoming students, “In this course, you are going to encounter words and images and ideas that are going to change your life. We’ve got Hamlet and Lear, Achilles and David, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Bennett, Augustine’s pears and Van Gogh’s stars—beauty and sublimity and truth. If you miss them, you will not be the person you could be.”

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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