Interlude: Is Being Human Only for the Rich?

Below are links to two news stories that give almost contradictory accounts of the state of liberal arts education in America, but a deeper look shows a cultural and class divide that has bigger ramifications.

In the first, from the Boston Globe, is an article about how “the leaders of many prestigious universities — including Cornell, Dartmouth, and Harvard — are increasing espoing the virtues of humanities in speeches on campus and abroad.” It goes on to describe how these universities are spending money to building new buildings increasing funding for the humanities departments of their schools.

“Literature and the arts should not only be for kids who go to cotillion balls to make polite conversation at parties,” Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of Dartmouth is quoted as saying.

(Read the full article at: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/11/08/college_leaders_work_to_increase_interest_in_humanities/)

In the second article, you can read about how some colleges are eliminating humanities programs, including foreign language departments whose usefulness seems obvious to me, in a bid to save money and manage their budgets. (Source: http://moneywatch.bnet.com/saving-money/blog/college-solution/kicking-unpopular-college-majors-to-the-curb/3606/?tag=content;related-link-3)

These universities include State University of New York at Albany (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/10/04/albany), which will eliminate French, Italian, Russian, and the Classics.

At Louisiana State University, Germand and Latin majors have been eliminated and students can no longer take classes in in Swahili, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. (Source: http://www.lsu.edu/departments/curb/qanda.shtml)

There is further talk of eliminating the Lousiaina State Univeristy Press and Louisiana Endowment for the Humanites. (Source: http://blog.nola.com/susanlarson/2009/05/funding_cuts_threaten_louisian.html)

What does all of this mean? It is interesting to see that the state universities, where most of our people go to be educated are cutting language and humanities programs at the same time that the Ivy League schools that have a reputation for producing many of this country’s leaders are increasing funding for them.

It seems we are looking at a situation where state universities are being turned into trade schools while the expensive, private colleges are turning into true universities. This should not be allowed to happen.

I have seen these fights occur before, and one of the arguments made is that schools should keep or eliminate departments based on the number of students enrolled in them. But that is not a good way to decide what knowledge is important. An education is not merely about making a living, but also about how we should live.

The idea that students should simply be trained to make a living is the idea that they are somehow less deserving about knowing about a larger world both in the sense of the physical world, but also in the sense of the intellectual or cultural world. In his introduction to the Great Books set, Robert Maynard Hutchins talks about this.

“So Bertrand Russell once said to me that the pupil in school should study whatever he liked. I asked whether this was not a crime against the pupil. Suppose a boy did not like Shakespeare. Should he be allowed to grow up without knowing Shakespeare? And, if he did, would he not look back upon his teachers as cheats who had defrauded him of his cultural heritage? Lord Russell replied that he would require a boy to read one play of Shakespeare; if he did not like it, he should not be compelled to read any more.”

Hutchins goes on to say that he would make Shakespeare a required reading for everyone and that the true task of the educator is to find a way to make a student understand how Shakespeare is relevant in his life and to the world at large. I can remember reading about a production of Shakespeare in the 1990s where the Montagues and the Capulets were played by Israelis and Palestinians respectively. It showed how the human condition has in some aspects remained the same despite changing times and places and suggests that maybe there are lessons to be learned from literature and a better way to live our lives.

It was around the same time, I believe, that Earl Shorris created the Clemente Course, which aims to provide college-level instruction and education in the humanities to low income people. The idea behind the course is that it is all well and good to teach people job skills and things like budgeting, but if you really want them to change their lives, then they need to learn to think about the bigger picture, and the best way to do that is through the humanities. Since its creation in 1995, the Clemente course has been replicated around the country and in various parts of the world, including Darfur, Sudan, and in South Korea.

In an article in The Common Review, Shorris describes the effects of teaching Kant to people in Mexico City. He describes how one woman said that she learned she was not a means, but an end, and thus she has dignity. So, she no longer permitted her husband to beat her.

I think this gets at a large part of the value of the humanities. They show that people are human and as such are deserving of and must claim dignity. As Hutchins puts it, writing in 1952, “As we must all become specialists, so we must all become men. In view of the ample provision that is now made for the training of specialists, in view of the divisive and disintegrative effects of specialism, and in view of the of the urgent need for unity and community, it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the present crisis calls first of all for an education that shall emphasize those respects in which men are the same, rather than those in which they are different.”

It seems to me that saying to the students of state colleges that they should focus only on those majors that earn them a living while telling the students at the private schools that they should get to think about their humanity is a disservice to us all. I think that we should all learn literature, philosophy, and other languages so that we can communicate with one another, share ideas, and truly understand one another. Everyone should have a chance to think the big thoughts and consider the broader context of life.

As Hutchins said, “The best education for the best is the best education for all.”

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