Humanities should not be undervalued

Christina Coleburn, Deputy Opinion Editor

An article published in the Dec. 2 edition of The International New York Times has rejuvenated discussions about the value of the humanities in the landscape of higher education. According to the piece, funding for humanities research in the United States has declined since 2009 and accounted for less than 0.5 percent of financing for science and engineering research developments in 2011.

These austere statistics are not the only indicators of the perceived inconsequence of the humanities. Proposed political interference suggests some elected officials find such studies unimportant. Earlier in March, the senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, submitted an amendment to the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 that forbade the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless the project promoted economic or national security interests. Last year, a task force assembled by Florida Gov.Rick Scott said students majoring in the social sciences and humanities should pay higher tuition than those concentrating in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields.

Although corporations, governmental entities and news media have lauded the STEM fields as the future of the U.S. economy, students can also stand to benefit from an education founded on the humanities. Subjects like literature, history and philosophy can teach cultural insight, social intelligence, ethical reasoning and historical clarity. These skills involve both analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills that, frankly, cannot be taught from STEM training alone. This is not to suggest extensive scientific or mathematical training is inherently detrimental. On the contrary, receiving an education with a STEM background can be both academically and economically worthwhile. Adopting this notion simply maintains that the humanities should be respected for their intrinsic qualities rather than be subjected to systematic devaluation.

A governmental task force recommending a comparative literature major should pay higher tuition fees than a chemistry major — for attendance at the same university — speaks to the one-dimensional, and often patronizing, shift the narrative about the humanities has taken. Rather than sustaining this tone of condescension, the dialogue should shift to one of respect. Despite innate differences, proponents of STEM could learn a great deal from the lessons offered by the humanities. By studying these allegedly soft subjects, STEM students could integrate insight about the human experience to complement their hard disciplines.

While certain outlets have held that STEM fields are the future of the U.S. economy, they have failed to grasp a critical point. What America truly needs are talented, diligent and independent-thinking individuals who can find creative solutions in the 21st century. These students may originate from STEM fields, but others may easily be comparative literature majors. A humanities education has immense value in these respects, and it should be celebrated, not devalued.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 10 print edition. Christina Coleburn is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected].