Few would disagree that higher education in general, and the Humanities in particular, are facing a crisis – one that is not new, but is newly obvious and urgent. There are many complex reasons for this crisis, including political, social and cultural, but the fact that the Humanities are facing a particular predicament can be attributed mainly to a problem in perception. In recent decades, there has been significant emphasis on the importance of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – with a view that these subjects somehow have more ‘value’ than the Humanities. The idea here, no doubt, is that there appears, on the surface, to be a clearer trajectory between a degree in, say, Information Technology than a degree in History, or English Literature, or Philosophy. The question seems to be “but what will you do with a Humanities degree? What job can it get you other than teaching?” This latter is, of course, an excellent career path for those who feel called to it, but it is not one that would suit all students of Humanities subjects. Unfortunately, this idea that a degree in the Humanities has little to offer by way of career choices has led inevitably to a drop in enrollment in, and graduation from, Humanities programs. The data is bleak. History, when looked at as a share of all undergraduate degrees at U.S. institutions, has fallen by 45% from its 2007 peak; English has fallen 49% since 1997; philosophy is down 34% since 2006, and more than 50 doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences won’t be admitting new students in the fall of 2021.
But this is, in fact, a problem of perception, and those debating the “value” of the Humanities are asking the wrong question. It should not be “what job can I get with a Humanities degree?” but “how can the skills I have learned on my Humanities courses be applied to the working world?” This is an important distinction, which leads to an understanding of Signum’s thinking on how we approach this crisis in the Humanities, and how we reframe the argument to show that, in fact, the Humanities have a significant part to play in the modern workplace but also, and equally importantly, in the formation of young, professional minds. A quality education in the Humanities should offer the possibility to become more humane, and therefore more functional, in a variety of social and professional settings. Thoughtful exposure to and consideration of a range of world cultural practices and viewpoints, combined with the opportunity to engage with those practices and viewpoints from a variety of perspectives, will help students to become more effective in both their personal and professional lives.
In terms of the modern workplace, it is irrefutable that, in Humanities programs, students learn a wide range of broadly applicable foundational skills. These include, but are not limited to, good writing; the ability to form and express logical arguments; data collection and data usage; critical reading and thinking; wider perspectives on the world; flexibility and adaptability of thinking, and culturally competent relational skills. All of these are essential in the 21 st century workplace and should be a result of the 21st century educational process, especially in the Humanities. So, how do we change the perception that the Humanities have less value in the twenty-first century and make it clearer to all – educational institutions, prospective students and employers alike – that Humanities courses teach these vital foundational skills?
Signum proposes that we reframe the problem by creating and offering a new program for Higher Education in Applied Humanities. If we are to address the misperceptions of the Humanities, it is vital that we foreground the applicable foundational skills that are taught as part of an education in Humanities subjects, but which have often been overlooked or disregarded. We also need to show how truth, beauty and an understanding of the human experience can be built into a practical course. By doing this, and by ensuring that students understand from the beginning that the Humanities have much to offer in terms of personal development and future career prospects, then this will, hopefully, begin to reverse some of the damage that has been done.
This is not a problem that will simply vanish on its own; if we don’t recognize, acknowledge and address the issue now, especially with the likelihood of economic difficulties in a post-COVID world, then we face the very real prospect of the slow death of the Humanities in Higher Education. This would be a disaster. The Humanities explore what it means to be human; without them, we will lose much of the richness that is built into our cultures and our very ways of life. Beyond the marketplace, the world, now more than ever, needs people who are able to move past the imposed compartmentalization of the global and technological forces at work, to integrate knowledge and skills and direct them to the common good, for human flourishing, and the stewardship of the world in which we live. This new emphasis on Applied Humanities, a practical, but rich way of seeing the world, provides the best answer for this dilemma.
After all, as Steve Jobs famously argued, “technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”