Humanities Counters in Old School Fashion

In an essay posted to Inside Higher Education this morning, Peter Burian effectively turned a traditionalist argument into a refreshing voice of reason amidst current debates on the value of humanities fields. Many champions of the liberal arts, including myself, have emphasized the “transferable skills” argument of liberal arts study for career-oriented discourse of higher education. This approach has breathed new life into the content course and pushed students to grow beyond their comfort zone for a competitive edge in today’s global economy. And while this curriculum crashing is a necessity, Burian reminds us that professor crashing is indeed required.

Assessment, course evaluations, accreditation, retention, and graduation rates are all important to the best teachers. But in our quest to be good teachers, do we forget to show students why we’re inspired to be good teachers? Burian hit the nail on the head in shifting the conversation from relevance back to essence. Rather than defending the value of the humanities to external demands, professors ought to emphasize and explore the depths of what makes us human. One cannot face the complexities of a culturally diverse and complicated world fully without seeking what lies beneath the shallow commerce of information in the digital age. And this fulfillment is a privilege of humanistic study, not a goal.

While I applaud Burian for reiterating the timeless benefits of the humanities, I predict an uphill battle in trying to “reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.” Perhaps the first step is to model these principles. Students should not perceive humanists as task masters for student performance, facilitators of “great works” surveys, and preachers of the liberal arts gospel. Rather, students should admire professors for their individual quests for knowledge, truth, and understanding and should awe at their deep and unique perspective on current realities. One cannot and should not teach what one is not passionate about. Passion will inspire more than words.

2 responses

  1. I love this. Of course, I love any defense of the humanities, but this is particularly important, the understanding that “humanities” are about, ahem, “humanity.” My thinking is, if we’re not interested in the humanities, what are we interested in? If “humanities” are things that make us human, aren’t the sciences humanities? And if sciences are experimental observations of the world bounded by theory and method, isn’t poetry a science? Not to mention, of course, the numerous recent surveys that have shown that employers do, in fact, want humanities majors–not the best argument for them, but always welcome!

    1. Indeed. The discovery of the scientific method is the product of humanism. I applaud employers who recognize and celebrate their creative capital. But the pervading arguments that professional degree programs are the ticket to employment and that employment is the purpose of higher education remain, hence the closure of “obscure departments.” Humanities professors ought to work with these employers directly in facing the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.

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