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The Humanities Crisis

NEW YORK – A striking symmetry is emerging in debates about the future of higher education around the world. On the one hand, there is growing concern that the United States and many European countries are failing to prepare enough university graduates in the fields driving the twenty-first century “knowledge economy,” such as engineering and information technology. This fear has led to the narrowing of the concept of education to mean the acquisition of practical skills.

On the other hand, the worry in some parts of Asia is that young people entering the work force with strong technical training lack sufficient experience “thinking outside the box.” This fear is manifesting itself in an incipient effort to expand education to include the cultivation of feeling and imagination.

Both movements are rooted in economic concerns. In the US, where most undergraduates bear at least part of the cost of their university education, political pressure is mounting to provide incentives like tuition discounts or loan forgiveness to students of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (the so-called STEM fields). Cost-cutting measures, such as compressing traditional four-year degree programs into three years – thereby reducing or eliminating elective courses in “impractical” subjects like literature, philosophy, and fine arts – are also being discussed.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, there are calls for extending university programs so that students can obtain a broad, liberal education, in the hope that graduates will be more inclined to experiment and innovate. Hong Kong University, for example, has extended its undergraduate programs from three years to four.