In which a scientist (with a little help from a poet) tries to make a case for teaching the humanities to undergraduates.
On Friday night I finished off the week with a visit to the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage for one of their free concerts. As a singer, this was a special one, with a performance and discussion being led by composer Eric Whitacre and poet Tony Silvestri. It was a chance to hear about the composition process, and the partnership between the composer and poet in creating vocal works.
Afterwards, there was a meet and greet, attended by throngs of excited (and young) fans – Whitacre is considered a rockstar in the classical music world, and his Virtual Choir project has been a massive boost for choral music. Having sung their work it was a great honour to finally meet them in person.
During the greet, Tony Silvestri (who is also a professor of History) engaged in conversation with a high-schooler who expressed her concern about wanting to follow her passion and study history, but was concerned about the lack of employment prospects.
What followed was a passionate encouragement, and a defence of why it’s important for the liberal arts to be taught in schools and universities. I’ll try and sum up some of the key points here. Sadly, I lack the eloquence of Silvestri, so bear with me, because it’s a argument that needs to be repeated.
First and foremost, an education in the humanities, be it history, philosophy, literature or so forth, teaches and refines the ability to find, analyse and criticise complex qualitative information. In a world where more information is at our fingertips than ever before, the ability to sift through it to find insights is more crucial than ever.
Studying the humanities teaches you to write. There’s no point being able to undertake analysis if you are unable to communicate it effectively to an audience. Yes, a high-school level education should also teach this, but university should polish it, instilling the ability to capture nuance and subtlety.
“Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
An education in history allows us to understand the evolution of society and of thought. It also teaches us to be able to research and compare often conflicting sources of information, identify the inherent biases and highlight or strip them out as is necessary.
The “Practical” Arguments
There are other, more practical arguments for studying the liberal arts. In a society where more people than ever are taking postgraduate education, the masters degree has taken on the role of being the job-specific education, with the undergraduate degree providing foundational skills. And the humanities make a good foundation.
As Tony Silvestri put it (or at least what I recall him saying): “Your undergraduate education is what makes your character.”
But why is this all important, and why is a self-admitted science graduate (good for logic, reasoning and data skills) making such a strong argument for it? Free and intelligent discourse relies on an educated populace. And it would appear that the populace is becoming less educated on the whole, and more polarised between the educated and uneducated.
In Australia, there are calls to end government support for students studying humanities, and here in the U.S. a Republican candidate has been criticised for quoting Max Weber. The greatest irony of this is that those behind the Australian proposal and the Republican candidate are both cut from the same ideological cloth. The lack of knowledge is causing politics to eat itself. Education in the humanities helps to prevent such dissonance. It also allows us to critically evaluate ideologies and beliefs, not in order to destroy them, but to evolve them into even better ideas that can benefit us all.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.