In defense of the Humanities

I vividly remember the day I decided to major in philosophy.  About 10 minutes after I told Hubby of my plans to be a philosopher, the Simpsons mocked me… informing me that unemployment was no longer “just for philosophy majors, its beginning to impact useful people too”… and, yet — I’ve persisted… hmmm.  That was more years ago than I care to admit — suffice it to say Melissa was calling someone to her window — in the top 10… and the Jeep Liberty was more than a few years in the future.

The criticism leveled at the Humanities is that being an art history major doesn’t pay the bills, so students should pursue more practical majors like business, engineering or computer science.  Additionally, the humanities disciplines aren’t likely to draw big grants like the hard sciences, so they’re seen as losing money. 

In essence, the Humanities are seen as nice “extras” or the dreaded “general education” requirements, but not as an essential part of the thinking life of the country.  For this reason, financial support for humanities disciplines has decreased and administrators claim that enrollment in those disciplines has also decreased.

As the chair of BNCC’s Humanities department, I’d have to agree with Crooked Timber that interest in the humanities is stable.  In fact, I have solid evidence that, at BNCC, enrollment in humanities disciplines has grown in the last three years.  As department chair, I’ve been adding sections to my disciplines every semester and my room grid is overflowing.  Additionally, our classes are filling up fast — clearly, students are taking courses in humanities disciplines at BNCC — and I can’t imagine we’re unusual.

Further, I’d like to refute the idea that the content of humanities disciplines isn’t “useful” — sure, most of my BNCC students won’t go on to major in philosophy (although, at least three or four of my current students are planning to do just that), and once they graduate, they are unlikely to make a living as philosophers.  That doesn’t mean that my courses aren’t “useful”. 

Many of my logic and ethics students are planning on careers in healthcare.  I’m sure the critics of the humanities wouldn’t care to have their chemo drugs mis-calculated and their personal medical decisions criticized by their nurse.  For this reason I think it is “useful” for the people responsible for your care to be able to think critically, follow complex procedures and reason to the end of a chain of events.  They learn these skills in my logic class.  I also think it’s useful for folks in healthcare to have an understanding of how to resolve an ethical dilemma, which they learn in ethics. 

Further, in terms of the Humanities being a “cost” for the university — this is simply shoddy accounting.  Humanities classes require minimal equipment.  I’ve taught in classrooms that even lacked a blackboard — and Socrates


did his best work on the streets of Athens using a stick to draw images in the dirt.

By contrast, the sciences need lab facilities, equipment and materials — and their class size is limited by their facilities.  At BNCC, it’s an acknowledged fact that the Humanities disciplines subsidize the technical programs, as we have large class sizes and a small cost per student and the technical programs have small classes and a large cost per student.

Finally, even when students transfer into more “useful” disciplines, they’re still going to need to be able to think critically about the world, make arguments to support their positions, and generally act like good human beings.  Really, if the folks on Wall Street had paid attention in Ethics, we may not be in our current economic trouble…

Yea, go ahead and tell me that my courses aren’t “useful” –I dare you.


One Response

  1. We are drowning in information but somebody has to be able to think about it

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