In Search of the Humanities

Calvin-College-450x300Today Inside Higher Ed is running a piece I wrote about my daughter’s college visits and her search for a school with a liberal arts and humanities ethos.

Here is a taste:

For the last several years, I have been arguing (along with a lot of other people) that humanities departments need to do a better job of showing students how the skills they learn in our courses are transferable in the marketplace. As part of their college experience, humanities and liberal arts students should know how to articulate those skills to potential employers. We want our students to get jobs in the business and nonprofit sectors not in spite of the fact that they majored in a humanities discipline, but because they did.  I have made these arguments in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and at my blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” through an ongoing series of posts that I call “So What CAN You Do With a History Major.”

As a history department chairperson, when I speak to potential history majors, or even curious students in my general education courses whom I am trying to “convert” to the history major, I emphasize not only the content that they will learn in history courses but also the transferable skills. I would encourage professors in liberal arts colleges to work with admissions officers about making sure students know that humanities majors can make a decent living in a variety of different professions and careers. If trained well, they should know how to think clearly, write well, communicate effectively, tell stories, empathize with others and take small bits of information and make meaning out of them.

A move in that direction may also require curriculum changes or additions. For example, at the college where I teach, we added a one-year “Introduction to History” course that contains a substantial unit devoted to careers. The students read the pertinent chapters of Why Study History? and hear from career-center staff about how to sell themselves as history majors to potential employees. Our department even added an “administrative studies” concentration to our curriculum. Students in that concentration take the full history major, but they use some of their non-history electives to take courses in business, leadership, economics and politics. 

I have worked hard at trying to transform my department along these lines, but sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in this direction. Instead of championing transferable skills and all the things students in history can “do” with their majors, maybe I should have spent more time challenging this market-oriented approach by defending humanities learning for learning’s sake. We don’t spend as much time anymore talking about the non-marketable values of the humanities or the benefit of humanistic learning to make us better people or citizens. I know that my faculty colleagues care about this, but I’m not so sure about the majority of the students whom I encounter. I worry that the success of a particular humanities discipline is now being measured by utilitarian ends such as career outcomes.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “In Search of the Humanities

  1. In brief, Dr. Fea, why you have so few allies on the right.

    http://edexcellence.net/articles/the-lefts-drive-to-push-conservatives-out-of-education-reform

    Better higher education be directed toward the useful than be perverted to the destructive.

    The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform

    Robert Pondiscio
    May 25, 2016

    At the opening plenary session of the New Schools Venture Fund meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, CEO Stacy Childress promised attendees that the meeting was going to “push” them to explore issues of race, equity, and education. For some, it was a face push. The session featured a panel discussion between a top Teach For America executive active in the Black Lives Matter movement, an activist concerned with the plight of undocumented youth, and a USC sociology professor who brought half of the audience to its feet with a remark (as paraphrased by someone in the room) that “the story of America is the story of progressive social movements, government, affirmative action, the GI bill, and Obamacare.”

    “There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked this attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”

    A few days later, a piece ran in Education Post with the headline “How an Elite Education Reform Conference Felt More Like a #BlackLivesMatter Rally.” It was a compliment, not a complaint.

    Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism. At meetings like New Schools Venture Fund and Pahara (a leadership development program run by the Aspen Institute), conservative reformers report feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence. There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.

    http://edexcellence.net/articles/the-lefts-drive-to-push-conservatives-out-of-education-reform

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