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Essay on how the public humanities reshaped a dean's thinking about academic humanities

Thinking About the Public
April 5, 2013

With so much focus on higher education's obligations to job preparation, the humanities are perpetually playing defense, especially in public higher education. We academic defenders of the humanities generally take one of two lines: we argue that 1) our majors ARE work force preparation -- we develop strong analytical skills, good writing, problem-solving, etc., or 2) we have no need to justify what we teach because the value of the humanities, the study of what makes us human, is self-evident.

These arguments over the value of degrees in the humanities run parallel to a set of arguments I find myself making as part of a role I occupy, as a board member for my state council for the humanities. The National Endowment for the Humanities allocates about a third of its funding through the state councils, and the councils in turn fund humanities initiatives at the state level.

State humanities councils such as mine (Rhode Island's) re-grant our NEH allocation as well as the money we raise locally to community humanities projects. We've funded research on communities of Cape Verdean longshoremen in Providence, oral histories of Second World War vets in hospice care, talk-back events at local theaters, seashore sound archives, a documentary film about a female 19th-century life-saving lighthouse-keeper, and lots of fascinating digital work, from archiving to app development. All the projects must involve humanities scholars — some of those scholars are affiliated with universities, and others aren’t. All of it aims at helping Rhode Islanders to understand ourselves, our histories, and our many cultures.

When economic times are tough, an agency such as the NEH is vulnerable unless legislators understand and value the role of the humanities in a strong democracy -- just as university humanities programs are vulnerable in state funding contexts when legislators, boards of trustees, or voters don't have a clear understanding of the value of the humanities in the culture and in the workplace.

In a career spent in higher education in the humanities, most of it at a liberal arts college, I rarely had to justify teaching what I taught. The value of an English major was self-evident to my colleagues and my students. Sure, the occasional parent would squeak, "But how will she make a living?" But I never hesitated to reassure the anxious check-writers of the value of our product. Having worked in the worlds of both journalism and Washington nonprofits, I knew how many good jobs demanded only a bachelor's degree, writing skills, research and analytic abilities, and common sense.

But then came the Great Recession and what many are calling the end of the higher education bubble. Questions about tuition increases, student debt, and colleges' lack of accountability (that is, the paucity of data on employment for recent graduates) get attached, in public perception, to the unemployment rate and to a re-emergence of the old post-Sputnik fears that the nation is not training enough folks in STEM fields.

Organizations such at the Association of American Colleges and Universities have been proactive in making the case for liberal learning as preparation for good citizenship, pointing to its employers' surveys. They have found that employers believe that the skills colleges should focus on improving are: written and oral communication; critical thinking and analytic reasoning; the application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings; complex problem solving; ethical decision making, and teamwork skills. These skills are not exclusive to the humanities, but they certainly line up with the student learning outcomes in humanities instruction at my institution.

It's not as if defenders of the values of a liberal arts education are ignoring economic realities: many liberal arts colleges are adding business majors, humanities fields are requiring internships and experiential learning, and colleges and universities are scrambling to make contact with successful alumni and to gather post-graduation employment data.

There's nothing wrong with linking liberal arts education in general, and the humanities in particular, to work. The humanities are inextricably linked to work and to U.S. civic life. When Lyndon Johnson signed legislation to bring the NEH into existence in 1965, it was in a context in which the federal government was pushed to invest in culture, as it had in science. NEH's account of its own history explains that the head of the Atomic Energy Commission told a Senate committee: "We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or esthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer."

Through my role in public humanities, I have come to understand that the humanities are what allow us to see ourselves as members of a civic community. Public history, public art, shared cultural experiences make us members of communities. This link has not been stressed enough in defense of the academic humanities. It's past time to make this important connection -- to help our boards of trustees, our communities, and our legislators to know what the humanities brings to civil society and gives to students as they enter the workforce.

In the first class I ever taught as a teaching assistant, I did my first lecture on Death of a Salesman. My topic was work -- how Willy's job is his identity. I pointed to a student I knew in the 150-student lecture hall and told him that his surname, Scribner, probably indicated the employment of some ancestor of his, a "scrivener," like Bartleby. Then I asked who else had last names that might have indicated a job. We had Millers and Coopers and Smiths, and many more.

When those students' ancestors worked as barrel-makers or at their forges, they worked those jobs for life, and their sons afterward did the same. But how many of us do the job our parents did? How many of our students will do the same job in their 30s that they will do in their 20s? Narrow ideas about work force preparation will not prepare our students for the work of the rest of their lives. Each job they take will train them in the skills they need to succeed in that particular industry. But a broad, liberal education will have been what made them people worth hiring, people who have learned the value of curiosity, initiative, problem-solving. Students in STEM fields and students in arts, social sciences, and humanities all will become members of communities, and a good background in the humanities will enrich their membership.

I loved the humanities as an English professor. But it was only when I became involved in public humanities that I began to understand their value not just for individuals but for communities. That's the public good. And that's why we cannot afford to let a narrow rhetoric of work force preparation push the humanities from our curriculums or defund the work of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bio

Paula M. Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts, and a member of the board of directors of the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities.

 

 

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