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Humanities classes are needed now more than ever

July 06, 2009

The American - and world - economy is in its worst shape in decades, and newspapers (which themselves are under siege) are filled with doomsday stories of global warming, nuclear threats, flu pandemics, war, murder and much mayhem.

Wouldn't this be the time for universities to graduate classes of business majors, science researchers and lawyers, all poised to fix the problems that beset us?

Wouldn't this be the time to cut down on, or eliminate, classes in history, philosophy, English, art history and religion, and prepare students for "real" jobs?

Sally Kitch, the director of the Institute for Humanities Research, disagrees with that proposition. Now, more than ever, she says, students need to study the humanities.

"The university isn't just about educating students for jobs," Kitch says. "It's also about preparing students for citizenship. Only educated citizens can make informed judgments about the problems that confront our country and elect the kind of officials we need to solve them.

"The humanities helps us understand the historical background and cultural frameworks of the issues we face and the possible unintended consequences of various solutions to them. In many cases, a humanities education helps us understand how we got into the dilemmas of the present, such as the current economic crisis, which is as much about weak values and modes of thought as about financial malfeasance."

"If we are to have informed citizens, it is essential to educate students who understand the foundations on which major civilizations have been built and will continue to flourish," says Deborah Losse, the dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor of French.

"The humanities assist students in learning to ask the important questions, not only how we do something but whether we should continue to engage in that same activity. The field of ethics lies at the heart of a humanist education.

"Within the context of the changing world, we need to be mindful of preparing professionals who can function globally. One of the essential parts of the humanities education is providing the opportunity to develop cultural and linguistic fluency in order to adapt to interact effectively with professionals in other cultural settings."

Quentin Wheeler, ASU vice president and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, agrees. In severe economic times such as the United States is currently experiencing, he says: "People need to be able to think critically and have a wide view of the world, both of which are gained from studies in the humanities."

Robert Mittelstaedt, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, argues that while a university education is "designed to make us useful members of society for the long term," students also must learn how to change and adapt as the world around them evolves.

Business schools teach "what some would call ‘skills' in the short term," Mittelstaedt says, "but the ability to learn, again and again, over a lifetime becomes the most important capability.

"Regardless of where we start each of us must learn to add value in society in some way to survive, prosper and enhance our world. Some of us start with more skill-based initial contributions. Others start with broad-based education to develop learning discipline without knowing where that capability will be useful in the short term."

Business school MBA enrollments generally increase during hard economic times because students see the downturn as an opportunity to return to school, with the hope that the economy will have recovered by the time they are looking for a job, Mittelstaedt says.

"But in the current recession we also hear stories about a deep desire to understand more about history, philosophy and ethics. Maybe tough times make us realize that each of us requires a fairly broad body of knowledge to succeed and feel complete."

How should a student decide what to study? Kitch believes that "parents should encourage their children to study what they love. Parents should say to a child: ‘Take a lot of courses. Prepare yourself for change.' The only thing we can predict is that the world will change."

"Statistics tell us that students graduating today will hold many jobs in their lifetimes," Wheeler says. "Being narrowly trained for one job will not serve you well for long, but a broad education in the humanities will prepare you to succeed in any number of careers and at the same time lead a far more textured and fulfilling life."
Mittelstaedt adds that there are no ‘right' or ‘wrong' answers to what to study.

"There is just a realization that in a modern world there is more to learn than ever and we must not stop learning if we are to be successful."