Today, I was interviewed by Hannah Leigh Myers, a friendly newscaster at KGNU, about the CU on the Weekend program I put together for this fall season with a group of colleagues. One of the questions that came up prior to going on the air (which Hannah Leigh then decided to ask during the interview) is “why do the Arts and Humanities matter in the 21st century?,” when the focus seems to be on STEM (see the president’s invitation of the young student who was suspended from school for building a clock), and there are many who question whether these subjects should be even taught in institutions of higher learning.
The answer I gave Hannah Leigh is a mix of pragmatism and idealism. On the one hand, as I mentioned in the interview, a recent survey of business leaders from 2013, suggests that many of them are looking for the skills and abilities (i.e., great written and oral communication skills, creativity, the ability to think critically and analytically) that come from being well-trained in the Arts and Humanities. When we engage our students in the critical discussion of historical events or in the analysis of literary texts in the classroom; when we ask them to draw, sculpt, dance, and film outside the boundaries of convention; when we ask them to consider the “big” whys of human existence and how they relate to their daily existence; we are training students to shift perspectives, to confront problems from a variety of angles, to elaborate well-thought out and well-defended points of view… qualities that are at a premium in today’s workforce, especially as we are told that the society that we live in puts a premium on creative thinking.
We are training students to shift perspectives, to confront problems from a variety of angles, to elaborate well-thought out and well-defended points of view… qualities that are at a premium in today’s workforce.”
On the other hand, the real value of the Arts and Humanities for many of us is what they contribute to our lives as human beings and, equally importantly, how they stimulate our lives both at work and when we do not work (theoretically, we spend more time doing the latter than the former, though I know some people for whom this is not true). The Arts and Humanities help us, as human beings, to have a richer life of the imagination, they teach us to dream of the possible and the impossible, they comfort us in times of need by feeding our desires to be moved, entertained, loved. They are also, as I said this morning, at the basis of many scientific discoveries, because it is through the possible worlds that philosophers, artists, and literary giants have envisioned, that human beings have often pursued the actualization of those dreams through discoveries and inventions. Just as importantly, they train our memories and give us hope. And in their engagement of our ethical and aesthetic capacities, they often guide the decisions we make and the meaning we give to our lives, day in and day out.
I would like to close with a citation from a very nice article by Sarah Churchwell titled “Why the Humanities Matter” (for the entire article, which I recommend, click here):
“The humanities [and the arts, I might add] are where we locate our own lives, our own meanings; they embrace thinking, curiosity, creation, psychology, emotion. The humanities teach us not only what art is for, but what life might be for, what this strange existence might mean. What kind of humans would think that the humanities don’t matter? We need the advanced study of humanities so that we might, some day, become advanced humans.”
We can argue about their utility, but can we argue that the Arts and Humanities don’t enrich and give greater meaning to our lives?
Sept. 18, 2015