The Importance of the Humanities to Humanity
By Thomas Winschel
Visions and Voices, USC’s arts and humanities initiative, has been challenging students to engage with the arts and humanities through various performances, guest speakers, and student workshops since its inception in 2006. While the initiative is considered a great success for a college level humanities program, Visions and Voices and all humanities initiatives in colleges across the country, are undermined by a lack of programming in lower education, because many college students have not developed a strong interest in the humanities prior to entering college. Largely as a result of the growing national emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, humanities classes and programs have seen budget cuts on every level of the American education system. While the nationwide decline of the humanities is difficult to encompass with a single statistic, one telling example is the recent budget cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the primary government agency in charge of supporting education, research, and public programming for the humanities: “In fiscal year 2013, the National Endowment for the Humanities was funded at $139 million, down $28.5 million from FY 2010, at a time when science funding stayed mostly intact” (Paxson). The high profitability and potential for scientific discovery associated with STEM fields makes a national focus on STEM education undeniably alluring. However, a background in the humanities is an essential component of a scientific education and the role of the humanities in education must be protected. Education in the humanities promotes diverse patterns of thinking which drive scientific progress and provides students with a foundation in ethics that is essential for navigating the complex issues and consequences in the scientific world. To protect the role of humanities in education, the NEH must receive significantly more funding and focus their efforts on cultivating interest in the humanities on the K12 level, to maximize the effectiveness of existing high school and college humanities programs.
Before discussing potential solutions for the decline of the humanities in the U.S, it is important to understand the different factors which contribute to this problem. Economic globalization and the rapidly developing economies of China and India have put additional pressure on the U.S to stay economically competitive on a global scale. Furthermore, the economic recession of 2008 increased focus on profitability and financial security on both a national and individual level. As Martha Nussbaum, an accredited professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago points out in her book, Not For Profit, the “highly applied skills” learned in STEM education are extremely well suited for “short term profitmaking”, while the connection between the humanities and profitability is less immediately clear (Nussbaum 2). As a result, the U.S and “virtually every [other] nation in the world” have championed STEM education as the means for economic success, and have made cuts to humanities on every level of education (Nussbaum 2). On a personal level, the profitability gap between STEM and humanities related fields, combined with the high cultural value on financial security, has caused humanities majors to become stigmatized. Humanities majors are regarded by many Americans as “useless” or “a waste of money” because they are not a clearly connected to high paying jobs. Those who pursue a humanities education are frequently subject to jokes and criticisms, including a recent denigration of art history majors by President Obama in a speech about skilled labor and manufacturing (Obama). This cultural stigma contributes to the decline of the humanities by perpetuating the view that the humanities are not a necessary component to education, let alone an education for a scientific career.
While STEM education does play an undeniably critical role in scientific progress, a solid background in the humanities is equally important because it trains divergent thinking skills which are essential to scientific innovation. Divergent thinking skills, or the ability to think outside the box, are a major component of creativity. Education reformer and creativity expert
Sir Ken Robinson maintains that children are inherently creative, but, due to the current state of the education system, they are “educated out of their creative capacities” (“How Schools Kill Creativity”). Research studies have consistently shown that one’s creativity and divergent thinking skills work much like a muscle: when utilised and pushed to their capacity, they grow, but when ignored, they atrophy. For an education system to promote creativity, it must provide students with a medium to exercise their ability to form their own thoughts and opinions. While STEM education provides one with the fundamental knowledge of scientific concepts that is needed for success in a scientific career, it typically deals exclusively with exact solutions and series of logical steps. The precise and methodical nature of STEM subjects leave very little room for original or creative thought. Humanities education, on the other hand, encourages students to form their own conclusions, question information and opinions, and further develop their ideas through writing and discussion. Whereas a math student may be asked only to memorize and apply Newton’s First Law to find the mass of an object, a humanities student is allowed and even encouraged to disagree with his teacher’s opinion on the end of The Catcher in the Rye or create his own idea for how the costumes should have been done for a local production of Macbeth. On the surface, these examples may not seem relevant or important for a person pursuing a career in science career. The subtle and unquantifiable nature of the connection between the humanities, sciences, and creativity is in fact, a large reason why the humanities are not given equal weight in an education for the sciences. However, what is clear is that creativity is essential for scientific progress, and a humanities education provides students with a means of developing their creative thinking skills, while an education based purely in STEM does not.
An education in the humanities is not only important for developing one’s creativity, it is also essential for providing future STEM workers with an ethical grounding necessary to create and use new technologies responsibly. While STEM subjects deal primarily with numerical values, the humanities deal with human values, which govern human behavior and the sense of right and wrong. Humanities education connects students with lessons in core values and morality through the powerful vessels of art and literature, in a way that STEM education cannot. Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, made an eloquent case for the value of humanities in governing technological change at a recent meeting of the National Humanities Alliance: “[The humanities] help us understand and respond to the social and ethical dimensions of technological change. As more changes come, we will need [the humanities] to help us filter them, calibrate them, and when necessary, correct them” (Paxson). With the increasingly rapid pace of scientific progress and technological change, it is more important than ever that those in STEM fields have a thorough education in ethical principles. For example, a chemical engineer at a pharmaceutical company can use his knowledge from STEM education to develop a new drug that could one day save millions of lives. However, it is the ethical principles learned through the humanities that ensure that this new drug will be thoroughly tested for safety and effectiveness in a way that minimizes risk to test subjects. Similarly, technological advances have provided energy companies with a variety of means for producing energy. An understanding and appreciation of human values and ethics ensures that energy sources will be evaluated for sustainability and environmental harm, and not just for cost efficiency. Scientific progress undoubtedly has the potential to greatly benefit Americans and the human race as a whole. However, if we foolishly allow for the humanities to wither away with the growth of STEM education, we risk losing the ability to ensure that scientific progress continues to work in favor of mankind and not against it.
While the NEH is well situated to protect and increase the role of the humanities in education, it must receive significantly more funding to accomplish this goal. Founded in 1965, the NEH has almost 50 years of experience promoting American understanding and appreciation for the humanities. The NEH works primarily through a grant system, “awarding grants for toprated [humanities programs] proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers.” (“About the NEH”). This system is cost efficient because it outsources the planning and development of humanities programs to private institutions and individuals who do not rely on the federal budget. While some may fear that a national organization like the NEH may be too far removed from the classroom to effectively promote the humanities, the grant system ensures that planning for sponsored programming is done on a state and local level. Some examples of previous projects include a summer workshop for teachers and professors on Roman comedy in performance and a series of interdisciplinary college courses designed to explore connections between literature and medicine (“Division of Education”). Programs such as these help teachers cultivate interest and appreciation for the humanities in the classroom and increase student access to humanities education.
The NEH already has the organization, procedures, and experience to effectively allocate funds to successful humanities programs? the only thing the NEH is missing is sufficient funding. When adjusted for inflation, the current NEH budget of $139 million equates to less than 30% of its budget in 1979 (“NEH Matters”). For the NEH to effectively protect and promote the humanities, funding should, at the very least, be increased to the 1979 level and should be adjusted annually to account for inflation. In the current economy, it is admittedly difficult to justify spending on programs which some would classify as nonessential. However, even if the current NEH budget was increased by a factor of 10, it would still only represent an infinitesimal portion of the current federal budget of approximately $3.5 trillion. Furthermore, funding for successful education programs is not so much an expenditure as it is an investment. The divergent thinking skills and understanding of ethics that a humanities education develops are essential for success in highly profitable STEM fields, as well as many other professions.
Increasing the NEH budget would help produce more wellrounded, ethical and innovative STEM workers, increasing profitability and accelerating the speed of scientific advancement in the process. The effect of a more thorough humanities education on the profitability of STEM fields alone would likely pay for NEH budget increases over the long term.
By placing a greater emphasis on humanities programming for K12 students, the NEH would help cultivate interest in the humanities at a young age and maximize the effectiveness of programs and classes in postsecondary education. Currently, the majority of NEH programs target teachers and students at the university level. These programs and similar university sponsored programs, such as USC’s Visions and Voices, are generally considered a powerful force in humanities education. However, they are often not mandatory, and depend heavily on pre existing interest in the humanities. Unfortunately, due to the frequent lack of adequate humanities programs on the K12 level, many students entering college lack a strong interest in the humanities. This holds especially true among students in STEM majors, who could highly benefit from participating in these humanities programs. To address this problem, the NEH must shift its focus to sponsor more programs on the K12 level. These programs would be composed primarily of summer teacher workshops and the development of new humanities curriculum, similar to those that already exist on the university level. By increasing the quality and quantity of K12 programs, the NEH would help generate a lasting interest and passion for the humanities at a young age. This would not only increase student participation in university humanities programs but also promote a deeper level of engagement from students who are already involved. Especially given the budget constraints of the NEH, it is critical that each NEH sponsored program reach as many people as possible. The best way to accomplish this goal is by increasing programming on the K12 level. In the blind pursuit of profit and scientific progress, the U.S has allowed the growth of STEM education to become synonymous with the decline of the humanities. It is critical that the U.S government recognize the essential role the humanities play in a scientific education, and adjust the funding and focus of the NEH accordingly. However, to argue for the humanities solely in terms of their potential benefits in scientific fields is to do them a disservice. The humanities provide us with the lessons in morality that guide us to live meaningful lives. They allow us to appreciate the inherent beauty of art, literature, and the world around us. They can give us a sense of purpose that extends beyond ourselves and even beyond the tangible world. The humanities are what separate us from the machines we create. As their name indicates, the humanities represent the core of the human experience, and do not need a tangible benefit to the sciences to be worth exploring.
"About the NEH." Neh.gov. National Endowment for the Humanities, 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014. "Division of Education Programs." Neh.gov. National Endowment for the Humanities, 2014.
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How Schools Kill Creativity. By Ken Robinson. TED. TED, June 2006. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. "NEH Matters." Neh.gov. National Endowment for the Humanities, 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
Obama, Barack H. "Remarks by the President on Opportunity for All." Whitehouse.gov. Office of the Press Secretary, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.
Paxson, Christina H. The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities. Proc. of NHA Annual Meeting. National Humanities Alliance, 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
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