This was an op-ed in the N&O that ran a few weeks ago. (link at bottom of copied article)
The well-written historical summary at the conclusion of the article has been highlighted for emphasis. Spot on brother.
The Humanities: At America’s Core
By Geoffrey G. Harpham
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK—When the ax fell, it was not a complete surprise. Colleges and universities all over the country are looking for ways to cut costs, and the humanities are an obvious target, given their negligible economic impact. So when, on Oct. 1, George M. Philip, president of the State University of New York at Albany, announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater would all be eliminated, it seemed to many to be the first Arctic blast of what might be a long and bitterly cold winter of discontent for the humanities at colleges and universities across the country.
But just as troubling as the cuts themselves was the rationale for them. “Given the University at Albany’s reduced revenue base,” President Philip said, “it is critically important for the university to rethink, balance and reallocate resources to support its core academic and research mission.”
What “core mission”—especially in a public university whose motto is “the world within reach”—is served by stripping out the humanities or cutting foreign languages?
What is a core mission, anyhow?
The idea of a “core” has a history that is hard to ignore. As World War II was ending, Harvard President James Bryant Conant convened a committee of professors and charged them with devising a national program for higher education that could address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who would be returning from war and going to college on the new G.I. Bill.
In their 1945 report, called “General Education for a Free Society”—which quickly became known as the Red Book—they called for a “core curriculum” with required courses in the natural and social sciences, and, most importantly, in the humanities, a curriculum that centered on the knowledge the committee thought was essential for all students.
This was a plan not for Harvard but for the entire nation, high schools as well as colleges. And the humanities were central to the plan—were, in fact, the core of the core—because they alone could address the deep goals of higher education, which were to instill in students a sense of history and culture, to educate them as citizens not merely as employees or workers, and to enable them to lead enriched and fulfilled lives after they graduated and outside the workplace.
The plan seemed innovative, but it was also deeply traditional. Elements of it could be found in the writings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and in the experimental educational reforms of Horace Mann, Bronson Alcott, John Dewey and Robert Maynard Hutchins. The core curriculum was, the committee thought, the culmination of the great American experiment in democracy, and was intended to “embody,” as Conant put it, “certain intangibles of the American spirit.”
The Red Book was taken as a national symbol of renewal, and its recommendations were incorporated almost immediately into the Truman Report of 1947, which described the goal of education as “a more abundant personal life and a freer, stronger social order.”
This non-vocational approach to mass education represents one of America’s great achievements. It produced the generation we now unhesitatingly call “the greatest,” and is still the envy of the world. Europe may have invented universities, but European nations are now struggling to make their system conform to the American model not just because American universities lead the world in research, but also because the American system has proven to be most effective at educating its citizens.
People who have had some exposure to literature, the arts, philosophy and history—where judgment, evaluation and interpretation are important—are equipped for democracy in a way that people educated in a more fact-based or authoritarian system are not.
They are also equipped with the flexibility and adaptability required in today’s world, where one may have to change occupations several times over the course of a working life. Those who spent their college years focusing on the job they would have when they graduated—those, that is, who were trained rather than educated —may well find themselves at a disadvantage when the job they trained for disappears or mutates into something else.
Judgment, adaptability, enrichment—these may be “intangibles,” but they embody the American spirit at its best, and developing them ought to be part of the core mission of any university, public or private, that seeks to serve its students and the larger society.