There has never been a time when knowledge of the humanities—language, philosophy, literature, history, art, theater—has been in such high demand outside its traditional province of academia and the arts. Many Asian universities, recognizing the need for laborers to go beyond mere technical skill, are adopting the model of liberal arts colleges in the west to help foster creative thinking among college graduates. In the United States, humanities-trained master’s and doctoral students are being actively recruited by organizations private and public, such as the Boston Consulting Group, Google, and various NGOs. In the medical field, a new MCAT section on the psychological, social and biological foundations of human behavior was added in acknowledgement of the fact that doctors should understand their patients the way humanities disciplines do (also, the Princeton Review reports that humanities majors outperform biological science majors on every portion of the MCAT). These demands for humanities-trained workers are borne out by labor statistics showing that most arts and humanities majors find fulfilling work that pays well.
But in spite of all this demand for the kind of knowledge provided by the humanities, elected officials on the right and left repeat the tired stereotype that humanities education offers little value. President Obama has alleged that students could make a better living with manufacturing and trade skills than an art history degree. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has called for “more welders and less [sic] philosophers.” Whether sentiments like these are grounded in fact or not, they have been leveraged into actual policy. In 2012, Florida governor Rick Scott proposed to lower public university tuition for STEM majors; federal policymakers have steadily cut funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities over the last decade. Moreover, these trends are not confined to the United States. British universities have been pressured to focus on majors leading to profitable research and careers, while the Japanese government recently demanded that all universities remove humanities programs, or else retool them to fit more “practical” needs of society.
Understandably, debates over the rising costs of higher education exacerbate the gap between the perceived and actual demand for the humanities. That gap may also have something to do with the fact that reports about STEM labor shortages are overblown to serve the industry’s interests (see also here). But it also reflects the conventional (and uniquely American) wisdom that knowledge without an immediate ROI is not worth having; in the words of a Harvard Crimson op ed, “Why spend four years listening to lecturers warn you that you can never really know anything?” That this reflects broader public opinion in the United States and the other countries it influences should come as no surprise, since our dearest cultural icons are people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey, all college dropouts who went on to make their fortunes. For the rest of us, their choice to forsake education in favor of riches might seem like an obvious one.
In the face of increasing public skepticism, and as someone knee-deep in the humanities both professionally and personally, I feel responsible for demonstrating the value of my chosen field to supporters and skeptics alike. I therefore dedicate this blog to revealing the many, many instances—I come across them on a daily basis—in which the humanities not only enrich our inner lives but also add economic, political and cultural value to human society. They help us understand the world we live in, from the core conflicts and challenges besetting modern civilization, to the minute, everyday details of policy. For a few quick examples from recent news about the Middle East, my specialty, did you know that one way militant Islamist leaders acquire clout is by writing poetry? Or that the claim, used as a justification for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, that Islam prohibits images of the prophet Muhammad was not true for most of that religion’s history?
And here I should admit my bias as a trained medievalist (and the tagline for my website): Nihil sub sole novum (nothing new under the sun). Every language, country, idea, debate, invention, culture and conflict of modern life has its precedent in times that are long, long gone. To understand ourselves and our present, we have to wrap our heads around the past. Do you know where you come from?