Whither the humanities in an economic downturn?

humanitiesAs a philosophy major (C- GPA!), I found this Feb. NY Times article to be interesting: In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.

I think my BA helped prepare me for life in some significant ways. OTOH, I think my alma mater, St. Thomas, failed to make explicit how, both when it came to a career and my life as a citizen. It wasn’t until I read What Color is Your Parachute? in 1972 that I came to understand that I was well-equipped to create meaningful and satisfying jobs and careers for myself throughout my life. And it wasn’t until I went to work for Utne Reader in 1990 that I realized I was well-equipped to contribute as a citizen. (continued)

So I’d have to agree with Richard Freeland, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education, quoted in the article:

But what we haven’t paid a lot of attention to is how students can put those abilities effectively to use in the world. We’ve created a disjunction between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals.

And this NY Times article today indicates to me that people need to know and apply the lessons of Dick Bolles more than ever: Job Losses Hint at Vast Remaking of Economy.

Are our Northfield colleges doing this?

One Comment

  1. Paul Zorn said:


    You ask:

    Are our Northfield colleges doing this?

    where “this” (I think) means helping students connect their liberal arts educations to their work lives.

    The question might better be answered by someone with recent experience as a student at one of our local colleges. But, speaking as one involved in providing rather than consuming the local product, I’d humbly suggest that St. Olaf does a pretty good job of this. (Yes, I’m not disinterested, so take it FWIW. And I’ve heard tell of another college way out east across the Cannon River, but I wouldn’t presume to judge it in this respect.)

    St Olaf addresses this question explicitly in its mission statement, which alludes to preparing students for “lives of worth and service”. Talk is cheap, perhaps, but I think St Olaf actually does a good job on the ground, where it matters. St Olaf is regularly a leader among liberal arts colleges in producing Peace Corps volunteers, for instance, and both local colleges are among the top undergraduate origins of PhDs in science and mathematics. I don’t know about PhDs in other fields, but Northfield must surely be near the US top in PhD and other advanced degree production per capita. These aren’t the only good or honorable post-baccalaureat directions, of course, but they matter, IMO.

    Whether a liberal arts focus becomes more or less useful in down economic times is a good question. True, a pure mathematics or a humanities major may not seem directly applicable to a lot of practical jobs. But people who can really read and write and cipher effectively, once in a job, are well set up to learn and adapt in real time. They’ll do OK, I suspect.

    March 11, 2009

Leave a Reply