Thursday, December 13, 2012

Are the humanities embattled?

One of the reasons I developed the term neurohumanism (see is that, as a humanist, I feel defensive. In this technocratic age it seemed seems necessary to frame an argument for the liberal arts and humanities, something that goes beyond flowery epithets to utilitarian concerns and scientific rigor. My anxiety doesn't seem unique, since public radio airs programs with titles like "Who Needs an English Major?" Even the latest issue Stanford's alumni magazine displays on its cover a phalanx of humanists beneath the title "Taking a Stand."

But are the humanities really that beleaguered? I was surprised to hear (from economist Alex Tabberock on American RadioWorks' podcast of 11/16/12) that we are graduating twice as many and visual and performing arts majors as we did 25 years ago, but fewer computer science majors. I suspect the reason for this is that as more and more people attend college, many of them gravitate to the humanities because they are (I'll admit it) easier than the stem degrees in sciences and mathematics. When was the last time someone had to grade an English final on a curve?

Even if Prof. Tabberock's figures are accurate, though, I don't go along with his conclusion: that tuition should be lower in the sciences because they generate new ideas of greater social value. I think the best argument I have heard for the liberal arts came from the pundit who said that if more of our leaders were history majors, we might not have embarked upon a war in the Middle East with the notion that it would be quick and easy. Even if it is true that the humanities create less novelty, I think there is something to be said for revisiting ideas that may not be new to humanity, but arise newly in each generation. Ironically one of these old ideas, familiar to any humanist, is Prof. Tabberock's assertion that only practical, useful inquiries are worth supporting. I guess he would've known that if he were a history major.

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