Doug Cohen: A new path to lead humanities education

Are the humanities dead?

That is the question many students who major in English, history, philosophy or the arts face from skeptics of a humanities education as they prepare to enter the workforce.

Doubters of the humanities question how classes that teach students about long-deceased philosophers or authors could possibly impart the practical knowledge or skills needed for the modern economy.

A humanities education is critical in the 21st century and provides students invaluable skills for the workforce and beyond.

The job market has not been kind to humanities majors, though, as the work force today increasingly seeks graduates of fields that appear to be most practical in the future: science, technology, business or health care.

Just more than 45 percent of recent humanities graduates are employed in jobs that require a college degree, and humanities majors have higher unemployment rates than those recent graduates who majored in computers and math, engineering and business, according to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

All of this is just proof positive for skeptics of the humanities.

And maybe rightfully so. With those numbers, it seems that history majors better start making plans to move back in with their parents. Or perhaps just prepare to sleep an engineering major friend’s couch.

The Gates-Jobs Dichotomy

So does this mean reading and studying “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is useless? Has Plato overstayed his welcome in college classrooms?

Two of the country’s most prominent visionaries – and college drop-outs – have weighed in on this issue.

Bill Gates, chairman and co-founder of Microsoft, promotes education with a career purpose. In February 2011, Gates argued at a National Governor’s Association meeting that there is no point in investing in areas of higher education that are, he said, “not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs.”

Under Gates’ manifesto, philosophy and English classes would likely be the first to be eliminated.

But this line of thinking promoted by Gates and others fails to capture the importance and essence of the humanities.

Studying the humanities equips students with a variety of lifelong skills, such as critical thinking, creativity or analysis that are inherently dynamic and transferable to many different employment fields, a belief held by the late Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive officer of Apple Inc.

In March 2011, Jobs said at the iPad 2 unveiling that, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

And those who will be hiring graduates agree with Jobs.

A 2009 survey commissioned by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 59 percent of employers believe the key to career success is not just in-depth skills in a particular field, but also a wide range of knowledge that a humanities education provides.

Companies and employers will look for someone who is a strong writer, or who excels at thinking critically and creatively. And a humanities education can provide that.

Same subject, new approach

So Plato and Dostoyevsky still belong in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean they cannot be taught differently than they were in the past.

And with this changing and internationally competitive economy, the humanities can be combined with skills-based curriculum and courses to best demonstrate that.

The University must ask itself how the existing framework of a humanities education can be used to teach students the practical skills and knowledge they will face when they graduate as well.

One way to do this is to use the humanities as a basis for interdisciplinary studies.

At Stanford University, a report released in January called upon the university to revamp its undergraduate education by exposing students to a core curriculum along with a wide variety of skills.

Stanford’s “Thinking Matters” courses are similar to changes the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences made with the creation of new GPAC requirements, which seek to expose students to a variety of skill-developing courses ranging from critical thinking to quantitative reasoning.

And while these changes in CCAS did include some new courses, Stanford also took its approach one step further by creating new courses that truly connect the humanities with practical skills and knowledge.

Take for example “Social Animals, Social Revolutions, Social Networks,” a Stanford course taught by three professors from different departments: French, biology and computer science. The class examines how individuals organized themselves and communicated their messages before Twitter and Facebook, comparing and contrasting how social networks are created and influence society. A student taking this class will be able to apply humanities-based skills such as historical analysis to modern technology and communications issues.

As GW continues to contemplate how interdisciplinary studies will be part of the future of academics, it should ensure that humanities majors can blend an old text with today’s issues.

One way to do this is to expand classes that are taught by multiple professors, as it allows students to be exposed to a wide breadth of knowledge. Professors can combine their expertise to provide humanities majors a more expansive education.

But just like how the humanities force students to think critically and creatively, so must the University when devising a curriculum going forward.

Connect a standard art history class with digital design or online portfolios. Use the classic novel “Catch-22” to teach students about moving through a web of bureaucracy in a modern day business or institution. Maybe even connect the psychological and mental trials and tribulations of Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” to new advances in science about the brain and mind.

Connecting a humanities education to career-oriented fields would only enhance the traditional university education. Surely not every single class would need to be delivered in this way but taking the next step with the humanities is critical to providing students a well-rounded and comprehensive classroom experience.

And now is the time to start asking these questions as the University begins to consider the value of interdisciplinary studies, or even the purpose of having a core curriculum in the new strategic plan.

And while some of these changes might seem unrealistic or even scary, they represent an exciting future for academics at the institution.

But it is not only the content of a course that matters, but also how students actually learn and wrestle with the material they are taught.

At Eastern Michigan University, professor Mark Higbee teaches a history class using the teaching method “reacting to the past,” which uses interactive games to help students learn. In his class on Frederick Douglass, students argue the viewpoint of different historical figures regarding slavery at the time. As they debate, students actively develop skills such as critical thinking, persuasion and analysis, which are all applicable to a wide range of careers and professions.

By delivering a standard history or philosophy lecture where students wrestle with the knowledge they are provided, a professor can see whether or not students can actually use and implement the information or skills they supposedly gained by taking a class.

Teaching active courses like this will help to ensure that humanities students can transfer the information they learn in class to a wide variety of settings in the workforce. And in the fast-paced global economy, graduates will need to have a variety of skills that are easily applicable.

The basic skills of argumentation, critical thinking and analysis are already built into philosophy, history and English courses. All it takes is shifting the curriculum to meet new demands.

Maybe the humanities aren’t dead, after all.

Doug Cohen, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet contributing opinions editor.

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