Last week, The New York Times published an article about the decline of the humanities on college campuses. The article noted that, at many colleges, the percentage of humanities faculty members far outweighs the percentage of undergraduate students majoring in such disciplines as English, history, languages, or philosophy.
Anyone who has spent time on a college campus recently can sense the shift. At the University of Massachusetts (where I served as trustee for five years), the focus has long been on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). There are some good reasons for this. Our nation needs more scientists, engineers, and inventors in order to stay competitive. We need innovators of technology to boost our economy and help strengthen us militarily.
STEM jobs are the “jobs of the future,” and, particularly in a weak economy, parents and students want to know that the money they spend on college is a “good investment”; that students will be prepared to enter the workforce upon graduation. But the exodus from the humanities isn’t just economic or utilitarian. It is also political.
It is no secret that the humanities long ago became a bastion of the far left. No longer are these departments places that encourage the discovery of universal truths that transcend cultures and connect students to generations past and present. Today, the humanities are balkanized pockets of multiculturalism — women’s studies, Latino literature, black power philosophy, queer history, etc. (Classes on “diversity” utterly lacking in diversity of thought.)
As a result of all of this, conservatives might instinctually react to the decline of the humanities by clicking their heels and mentally chanting, “ding, dong the witch is dead!” But conservatives should pause before breaking out the champagne, as the study of the humanities fosters many conservative values.
A classical liberal arts education is the only non-coercive equalizer. Bringing students from different cultures and backgrounds together to study and debate great works opens the pathways of intellectual discourse to all, teaches students to see the interconnectedness of humanity, and increases economic mobility by educating for life.By contrast, highly specialized education creates social stratification and locks people into career tracks that, in the long term, limit mobility.
A classical liberal arts education encourages community and civic virtue. Whereas education aimed at workforce readiness encourages students to look inward, a liberal arts education encourages students to look beyond themselves to that which we share in common. It prepares the next generation for good citizenship — a life of civic participation, the pursuit of truth, and the cultivation of personal qualities important to the success of the social order.
A classical liberal arts education teaches valuable skills, including critical thinking and logical reasoning. It teaches skepticism of that which is trendy in favor of that which is true — today, a politically conservative notion.
To be sure, it is difficult, on many campuses, to find a course on the Great Books of Western Civilization that doesn’t spend most of the syllabus ”deconstructing” the texts as instruments of white oppression. But such courses are still worth taking as they at least expose students to the ideas that shaped our world and challenge students to stand up for universal principles.
College professors, therefore, aren’t the only folks who should worry about the death of the humanities. Political conservatives should too. Those who are ignorant of history, literature, and political philosophy will inevitably cede the culture to the far left. To some extent, they already have. If we give up on the humanities altogether, we might as well raise a white flag.