Monday, May 12, 2014

"Do you realize you're going to need us soon to rescue the United States?"

Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including  The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government.  Over at CNN he issues a powerful rebuke to all those naysayers who have been questioning the value of a humanities education.  Here is a small taste:

Every month there seems to be a new report on how liberal arts and the humanities are disappearing from American colleges and universities. Academics everywhere are asking each other anxiously what they can do to reverse the decline.

But they're asking the wrong people the wrong question. Instead of talking mainly to other elites, champions of a well-rounded liberal arts education should be speaking directly and more creatively to the public.

And this: Do you realize you're going to need us soon to rescue the United States?

The question they should be asking is this: Do you realize you are missing out on a golden pathway to influence and purpose?

This is brave talk, I know, considering that the share of students majoring in the humanities has been shrinkingdramatically. The reasons are well known and seemingly unstoppable: As higher education has gotten far more expensive, parents and legislators demand better "return on investment." The greater the focus on ROI, the more attention is paid to "strategic" fields with obvious employment prospects, like business and computer science.

And the more that happens, the less interest there is in fields like English, philosophy and, as President Obama himself mockingly noted, art history.

I have nothing against the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Nor do I think a business or marketing degree is inherently useless. But the rush to "practical" education, which has accelerated since the Great Recession, arises not so much from optimism about what science and technology can do for our country but from anxiety about falling behind in a time of severe inequality.

When a society like America becomes ever more winner-takes-all, panic starts to set in. People obsess over declines in relative status. They forget why we educate children. They forget what made (and can still make) our country exceptional.

A liberal arts education has its roots, etymologically and otherwise, in the requirements of liberty: what it takes to be a self-governing citizen rather than a slave. To be a citizen of a country like the United States you should be literate in the humanities as well as the sciences, in the arts as well as accounting. Illiteracy is risky. Willful illiteracy is civic malpractice.

To disparage liberal arts, as politicians often do, is to disparage citizenship itself. And though it may seem populist to champion so-called practical fields, there's nothing more elitist than saying that most people can't benefit from a liberal arts education.

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