Why the humanities still matter

Why the humanities still matter

by Mary Isca Pirkola

Craig Reynolds remembers coming to Grand Valley intent on becoming a medical doctor  until he took a course on the ancient Greeks.

The course was taught by a team of professors in history, philosophy, literature, and the history of art and science as an interdisciplinary, six-credit freshman Honors course. This course was a revelation to me about the depths of the humanities, the richness of scholarly inquiry and the interconnectedness of knowledge, Reynolds said. This course lit a fire in me for the humanities. I immediately changed my major to philosophy and never looked back!

Since graduating with honors in 1989, Reynolds has built a successful career in research administration, combining his love of the humanities with his interest in science. He has held positions at the National Science Foundation and several universities, including the University of Michigan, where he is currently the associate director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects.

My studies of the humanities helped to develop in me certain habits of mind that are critical to success: how to read and think critically, pay attention to detail, integrate new points of view and discard illegitimate ones, write and speak clearly and persuasively, and recognize when I am wrong, said Reynolds. I use these skills every day.

Reynolds experience exemplifies many of the points detailed in a recent report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on the state of the humanities and the social sciences. The report, two years in the making, was requested by a bipartisan group of legislators and distributed in June to every member of Congress. Its purpose was to advance discussions on the role of humanities in the classroom and modern American life at a time when the spotlight, and funding, is heavily focused on STEM courses: science, technology, engineering
and math.

By the numbers

Throughout the summer, the discussion continued in national media. A New York Times article by Verlyn Klinkenborg said that when students choose majors they believe will lead to good jobs, they too often skip the humanities, presupposing that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring. He lamented, a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college.

Dozens of other articles and the academys report examined the employability of humanities graduates and the perception that the entire field is in crisis, with enrollments on the decline. However, the results at Grand Valley and elsewhere indicate little change over the past 40 years.

Beyond the numbers

President Thomas J. Haas often uses the acronym STEAM to describe the universitys integration of the arts with the STEM disciplines. More broadly, the interdisciplinary mode of education found in all current majors at Grand Valley is the basis for a liberal education.

Frederick Antczak, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, noted that the universitys General Education reform specifically addressed bringing people from a broad range of interests together.

Thats the working world now, and at Grand Valley we have a very interdisciplinary way of integrating these different strengths in the classroom, he said.

As examples he cited how nursing students are being impacted by human rights issues, how ethics plays a huge role in the education of business majors, and how graphic design and media production have become an integral part of business, science and engineering as well as the more typical fields of art and communications.

Brittany Hunter, 08, a software designer with Atomic Object in Grand Rapids, said Grand Valley provided the environment and the opportunities to explore what was important to her and to develop qualities she didnt know she had.

My clients and colleagues are often astonished when they learn that my formal training was in Classics rather than a more traditional degree for my field, such as art or computer science, she said. However, the skills I built while studying ancient languages, philosophy and rhetoric have been invaluable in my career as a software designer.

Hunter said good design is much deeper and broader than just creating stunning visuals. Her work includes shepherding clients ideas from initial concept, which is often just a few sketches and bullet points, to a fully functional software product. She relies on her skills of critical and analytical thinking as she decides what to build and what features to include. It also requires a lot of research and the skills to synthesize that research; skills Hunter said she learned and practiced every day while working toward a Classics degree.

While my daily activities at work dont involve reading Homers Iliad or Ovids Metamorphoses in the original Greek or Latin, studying these ancient languages actually prepared me to be able to decipher complex systems like my clients business processes and the application code written by software developers, Hunter said.

Engaging in discovery

The humanities explore what it is to be human and teach empathy by revealing how people throughout time have tried to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of the world. The key to understanding others is through the study of their languages, histories and cultures.

Hillery York knows her way around a vast array of cultures and periods of history. She graduated from Grand Valley in 2012 with a history major and an archaeology minor, then moved to Washington, D.C., to accept a year-long internship with the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonians National Museum of American History. Numismatics is the study of coins and currency and the museums collection contains 1.5 million such objects.

Because our collection is so diverse I pretty much have to be an expert on the history of every country throughout time, she said.

York also believes her degree helped to set her apart from other applicants for the position. The first day of my internship my advisor told me that she had picked up on my application because she thought my history major and archaeology were a unique combination and I would bring new insights into the collection, York said.

Her internship has been extended through 2014 and she is attending George Washington University working toward a masters degree in museum studies. York said she would not be there today without a liberal arts education and the guidance and support she received from her Grand Valley professors. It was my general education course in European history that sparked my interest and set me on this amazing path. I now have the opportunity to meet and work with researchers from around the world who share a similar passion, she said.

The practical degree

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences report included many recommendations and three specific reasons for advancing the humanities and social sciences in America: to provide students with an intellectual framework and context for understanding and thriving in a changing world; to foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong; and to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

Antczak said a Grand Valley liberal studies education in general, and the humanities in particular, accomplishes all the above and prepares students with skills in demand
by employers.

Look at Fortune 500 company presidents and CEOs. You dont see narrow technicians, but rather people who are broadly educated, have an understanding of multiple cultures and languages, who can divvy up data in a variety of ways, communicate effectively and who have the sort of perspectives that the humanities teach, he said. The people who make communities are not just those who are leading a project, but also the people who are working on it with creativity and some sense of how to make it special.

He said some of the types of jobs that this years freshman class are going to get after graduation dont even exist yet. How do you prepare students for that? What we try to do at Grand Valley is prepare students to be adaptable through a lifetime of change, he said. And then we turn them loose with skills that can take on anything.