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Humanities: The practical degree

The release this week of “The Heart of the Matter,” the report of a national commission convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is intended to set off a discussion of the value of the humanities and social sciences — not only to our educational system but to American culture and society more generally. That conversation is likely to run along the usual lines. We’ll hear about how a well-rounded education fosters creativity and innovation, why it’s important to think about what things mean and not just how they work, how an understanding of history and the ability to think critically are important elements of citizenship. And we’ll hear the pushback from a currently popular line of argument that reduces education to job training, job training to the imparting of technical skills, and technical skills to math and science and engineering.

I hope — but don’t expect — that this report will help us think in purposeful and useful ways about why we should invest heavily in the branches of knowledge that fall within the wide embrace of the humanities and social sciences. It’s an uphill battle, though.

Part of the problem lies in how the case is made. Too often it’s muddied by way too much talk about the meaning of life and the enriching experience of beauty. I’m all for meaning and beauty, but I prefer to make the case on more practical grounds: Full and effective participation in a postindustrial society and economy requires advanced analytical and expressive ability, and studying the humanities and social sciences is essential to developing those abilities.


Those making the case for the humanities and social sciences also find themselves up against the widely held assumption that the primary function of school, including higher education, is to provide job training by teaching specific workplace skills that employers need but don’t want to devote the resources to teaching themselves. If we’re going to have a real conversation about whether we should create more robust vocational tracks in our schools, then let’s do that, but the current tendency to reduce the root premise of all education to employer-outsourced job training is dangerously literal-minded. That’s especially true when the typical worker entering the labor market can expect to undergo so many shifts not only in jobs but career trajectory. Your education should equip you to learn fast and well over a lifetime, to handle complexity in the many forms you will encounter it, not to fasten this widget to that one like so.

The other thing we hear way too much about is how shortchanging the humanities and social sciences would improve our competitiveness by making our education system more like those of our rivals, with China chief among them. There are many things to admire about education in China — the stripped-down emphasis on academics, the value placed on hard work, the heroic commitment of students to achievement, the general esteem accorded to teachers and scholars — but it’s not a comprehensive model to emulate, which is perhaps why we’re seeing a growing impulse there to move toward more of an emphasis on Western-style humanities.


When I visited 14 universities across China in 2009, I was struck by how hungry the students seemed to be for anything at all that felt like analytical engagement with culture. As impassioned, inspired, and game as those students were, their minds were being slowly starved by rote instruction dominated by fact-acquisition and teaching to the test. When they studied American literature, for instance, most of them weren’t even reading Melville or Whitman; they were reading textbooks that explained why Melville and Whitman were important, then repeating that material on tests. You couldn’t ask for better students, and in their humanities and social science courses they weren’t being offered anything worthwhile to learn.

And I don’t just mean worthwhile in some truth-and-beauty sense. I also mean it in the most concretely practical way. They weren’t being offered enough opportunities to hone exactly the suite of talents that the case for the humanities and social sciences should rest squarely on: assimilating and organizing large, complex bodies of information; analyzing that information to create outcomes that have value to others; expressing ideas in clear, purposeful language.


Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’