Who Needs the Humanities Anyway?

October 2013 Math Workshop 003Last week, the New York Times ran an article on the waning interest in the humanities.   Interest Fades in the Humanities

As a response, a parent emailed me his concern, writing, “…‘21st-century education’ aside, one of my biggest concerns as an educator is that most people now seem to believe that education amounts to little more than job training. That is a hazardous sort of reductionism in my opinion.”

Formal education as job-training began in the Industrial Revolution, as a way to train a workforce for the factories. The mid-20th century prosperity and subsequent growth of the middle class made higher education accessible for many more people, and it was pursued at that time for idealistic reasons: to improve one’s mind and to make the world a better place. Following the economic upheaval of the 70s, the “me-generation” of the 80s focused on higher education as the path to new well-paying jobs.  College became a means to an end and as a result, interest in the study of the humanities fell dramatically. Sadly, the parent who emailed me is right; for many, college education has been reduced to job training.

The 21st century has brought a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), so that our students will participate and compete effectively in the global economy.  It is generally believed that the country that leads in bio-technology, engineering and computer technology will become the dominant economy. Support and funding for STEM education will continue both because of the demand for tech workers and engineers (true) and because of the belief that the US is being left behind in this arena (somewhat less certain).

The 21st century has also brought us into the service economy. Currently 80% of our country’s jobs exist in this sector. And the demand for well-trained professionals in the service economy will also continue to grow. Anyone who engages with customers, clients or patients is in the service economy, and it requires the broad, integrated skills that are studied and developed in the humanities: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.

Too many of our young people are graduating college without the ability to think critically or solve complex problems. Today’s universities are increasingly focusing on narrowly defined technical disciplines, creating courses of study and degree programs in “silos,” excluding an understanding of the humanities and what makes us human.

The challenge will be to create opportunities to include the humanities in an integrated and authentic fashion – much like the real-world functions. In the end, we need both, and always have.  Our challenge (and that of the colleges and universities) is to figure out how to achieve a balance.

We purposely embraced our new Hillel motto: “Exceptional academics and a deep knowledge of Jewish values – ‘Mind and Soul Better Together’,” to emphasize the need for a well-rounded education.  Our children need to be exposed to both the sciences and humanities and they need a strong foundation in Judaism; through that exposure many will find their passion, become educated, for its own sake, and be better prepared for the world they will inherit with a solid moral footing.

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3 Responses to Who Needs the Humanities Anyway?

  1. MAF says:

    Originally, “humanities” were “classics”. That is, upper classes sent their children to learn Latin and Greek literature and philosophy, as well as the major works of western literature, art, and music. As Jews, we have historically not delved so much into the classical education, preferring Judaic subjects, which I think is fine.

    In other words, as long as we have a strong Judaic studies program at Hillel, I think we are going to quite well with Humanities!

  2. Susan Shlom says:

    The arts allow us to explore what it means to be human. Self expression through art, music, dance and literature have been ways to reflect a society and to define society as well. Our students are using the humanitites for all of these reasons. At Hillel we celebrate the arts in most every classroom. Children would not have it any other way! Even the upper school students use the arts. Sixth graders learn the term aesthetics in referring to an imaginary city project. Seventh graders use a painting of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention to explore the lifestyle, economics, and aesthetics of the time. They hope to see the original at the Capitol on their Washington D.C. trip.
    21st century skills help us remain open to the arts and truly tap the creative spirit.

  3. Jared Berman says:

    I agree with this in principle. When I think back to my college courses, the ones i trully remember (and remember fondly) were humanity classes. Things like, “Worlds’ Religions”, “Gender Studies”, “Anthropology”, are the ones that helped shape the person that I am. However, I am one individual who does believe that formal education is a training ground for your career. I guess what I am is saying is i do not believe we can abandon these humanitarian programs/classes, but we do have to acknowledge that it has to be a minority in the overall formal education of our kids. We must, as parents, make sure our kids are exposed to other things than STEM outside of the classroom. It cannot fall completely on our educators.

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