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Why We Need the Humanities More Than Ever

date:Mar 20,2013 source:互联网 editorial staff:linan clicks:

March 19, 2013—Everybody loves science. What parent doesn’t breathe a sigh of relief when a college-bound son or a daughter announces a decision to study in that field, whether in the form of engineering, particle physics, or computer science? After all, the kid could have concentrated in English.

Why We Need the Humanities More Than Ever

Which begs the question: what are the humanities worth? It’s question that makes humanities scholars apoplectic with its reductionist simplicity, but President Christina Paxson tackled it head on when she delivered the keynote address in Washington, D.C., yesterday at the annual meeting of the nonprofit advocacy group the National Humanities Alliance.

As Paxson pointed out, the humanities certainly have their enemies. She named the usual suspects—radio talk show hosts, Republicans—and observed that good politics can sometimes mean taking pot shots at that squishy thing called liberal arts: “If you happen to be the governor of a larger Southern state,” she said, “then questioning the humanities, or college in general, can make for an easy and effective form of populist politics.”

As a result, while federal science funding has remained level, funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities has been decreasing since the Reagan years, most recently down $21 million between 2010 and 2012. Admittedly, Paxson noted, the politics are hardly irrational: “Humanities funding often strikes critics as an especially muddle-headed form of government spending, which is not made more palatable by the fact that an education in the humanities so often turns out to be an education into liberalism.”

But this politicization misrepresents what the humanities have meant to our civilization throughout history and what they still mean today. The humanities, she said, not only have obvious benefits to such fields as history, literature, art, drama, music, and area studies. The humanities are really about the understanding and application of our culture’s deepest values.

Yes, the immediate benefits can’t be measured by their effect of the GDP or employment rates or the stock market. But they are often what has motivated, and even inspired, those innovators whose successes have had an impact on those measures. “When I ask any of our business leaders what they valued most during their years at Brown,” Paxson said, “I am just as likely to hear about an inspirational professor of classics or religion as a course in economics, science, or mathematics.”

Ever the pragmatic economist, Paxson offered three strategies for better promoting the humanities. First, she said, it’s up to higher education scholars and administrators to point out the immediate benefits of studying the humanities. “In the complex, globalized world we are moving toward,” she said, “it will obviously benefit American undergraduates to know something of other civilizations, past and present. [And] any form of immersion in literary expression is obviously helpful when we are learning to communicate and defend our thoughts.”

In addition, she said, those in higher education have a responsibility to remind society that measuring the immediate benefits of knowledge is a myopic view. “We certainly want to know what benefits will accrue from all of the research and conversations taking place on a lively college campus,” she said. “But we should be prepared to accept that this value may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.” Citing Abraham Flexner’s 1930 essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” a favorite of hers—she also quoted from it in her inauguration speech last year—Paxson pointed out “that random discoveries can be more important than the ones we think we are looking for.”

Finally, Paxson argued that given the rapid pace of change in today’s world, the humanties can help us better understand the innovations that are arising with such blinding speed. “We need humanists,”  she said, “to help us understand and respond to the social and ethical dimensions of technological change.”

And that’s where universities like Brown come in. “Universities,” Paxson argued, “should not merely train students who can survive and prosper in the world as it is. Instead, we should educate students who change the world for the better. Our focus should not be only on training students about the skills needed immediately upon graduation. The value of those skills will depreciate quickly. Instead, our aim is to invest in the long-term intellectual, creative, and social capacity of human beings

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