Last summer, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report stating that the humanities are in trouble. Parents are spending less time reading to their children, K-12 history teachers are less equipped to educate than teachers of other subjects, and federal funding for academic research and development in the field is shrinking.
For anyone paying attention to such things, this isn’t a surprise. As reported in The New York Times, Harvard has seen a 20-percent decline in humanities majors over the past decade, and most students who claim they intend to major in the arts end up earning a degree in something else. Or, as stated in another article lamenting the decline of English majors, “In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62.” In the past few months, statistics like these have prompted the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal to publish pieces musing on the merits of spending a significant chunk of one’s life studying Plato and Dante, Rousseau and Woolf.
In an era plagued by an expansive economic recession, heightened global competition, and disheartening student-loan debts, pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) seems to be where it’s at. They’re more practical fields, the thinking goes. Just ask governor of Florida Rick Scott, who in 2011 said, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so,” while arguing that funding should shift away from departments like psychology and anthropology in favor of STEM programs. Employers, after all, value employees who possess tangible skills as opposed to a knack for problematizing cultural norms in a 12-page essay. And what are the humanities other than a luxury afforded to a select few in a time of peace and rest, anyway? This appears to be the general assertion behind America’s waning interest in arts and the social sciences.
“Global warming, for example, is a multifaceted problem that needs people who can think about not just environmental sciences, but also politics and economics and psychology and engineering and chemistry.”
According to researchers from Michigan State University, evidence points in a different direction. In an article titled “Arts and Crafts: Critical to Economic Innovation,” published in the August issue of Economic Development Quarterly, the authors argue that a lifelong engagement in the arts–creative writing, music, acting–can yield profitable results for innovators and entrepreneurs.
By interviewing a group of MSU Honors College graduates who majored in a STEM field between 1990-95, the team of multidisciplinary researchers found that those who launched businesses or generated patents received up to eight times more exposure to the arts as children than the general population.
“If what we want are creative, inventive people as opposed to technicians, then we need to support more broad-based, Renaissance-style educational opportunities and experiences,” said Rex LaMore, one of the study’s lead authors and the current director of MSU’s Center for Community and Economic Development. “It doesn’t matter how you get it—whether through public schools or private lessons—just as long as you get it.”
The study concludes by stating that there’s likely a strong correlation between training in the arts and success as a scientist or engineer—success that can be “measured in economically valuable products such as patentable inventions and the founding of new companies.”
Granted, learning how to play scales on the piano as a young child is not the same as studying music history as a young adult. Nor is acting in a local community performance of Hamlet equivalent to writing a dissertation on the work of Shakespeare. But it’s not a stretch to say they’re related, or to suggest that one can, and does, grow into the other. Apart from art’s power to transform us into creative citizens capable of dealing with moral ambiguities, there’s monetary gain to be had, too.
JUST HOW CAN AN interdisciplinary education benefit both a student and her country is a question Canadian journalist Erin Millar has thought of often and deeply. In her upcoming book, tentatively titled The Flexible Brain: The Power of Learning a Little About a Lot in a World Ruled by Experts, Millar explores the growing debate over whether or not merging arts and sciences in unique ways will foster much-needed innovative thinking.
“There’s a lot of pressure right now on universities and colleges to make themselves relevant,” Millar said. “A lot of politicians are telling them to quit spending money and wasting students’ time on asking unanswerable questions and other intellectually indulgent arts and humanities pursuits, and instead to give students concrete skills that will make them employable.”
As Millar explains, however, on the other side of this discussion exist those who believe that what employers really want is not a set of career skills, which can be taught on the job, but rather employees who can collaborate, think critically, analyze unprecedented amounts of information, and view problems from a multitude of diverse perspectives. In other words, all things humanities.
In a recent article published by the Globe and Mail, Millar refers to these desired yet somewhat intangible attributes as “21st-century skills,” which various programs in North America and abroad, such as the Institute of Design at Stanford and Stratford Campus at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, are trying to cultivate through a fusion of disciplines.
“The current education system is designed to solve specific problems in the industrial-manufacturing age,” Millar explained. “So at a time when our economy is changing, we need a whole bunch of workers with a different set of skills designed for the digital age. Global warming, for example, is a multifaceted problem that needs people who can think about not just environmental sciences, but also politics and economics and psychology and engineering and chemistry.”
So will you be genuinely derided for your scholarship on Moby Dick the way Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University and co-chair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, ironically was when he appeared on the Colbert Report to defend the necessity of his craft? Probably. But is it the degree in biology alone that’s becoming increasingly obsolete in our present-day marketplace, where the ability to communicate is king? Perhaps.
As stated in a 2011 article from The Atlantic:
STEM doesn’t necessarily help create the “New Work” workers that are so highly valued in the evolving global economy. In a report on “New Work,” the Pew Charitable Trust wrote, “The creative jobs that drive innovation are now the highest ‘value added’ jobs in the world—the real creators of wealth. If states are going to stay competitive, they have to … develop a workforce capable of doing creative work.”
The Pew report acknowledges that creativity doesn’t just come from artists. In fact, there are approximately 170 occupational classifications that make up “New Work,” which can be grouped into five major categories based on the types of knowledge, skills, and aptitudes needed. They are Creative, Education, Social, Technical, and Strategic. Based on these classifications, STEM appears to account for only one fifth of the training we’ll need to compete in the coming decades.
While they might not exist in the conventional forms everyone is accustomed to, humanities and social sciences aren’t going anywhere.