agar6_Bernd Weißbrodpicture alliance via Getty Images_university Bernd Weißbrodpicture alliance via Getty Images

Finding Purpose in the Humanities

With policymakers intent on privileging technical “job-ready” majors, it is becoming more difficult for liberal arts departments to attract students. But these fields of study are as important as ever, and with a few modest reforms, they should be an easy sell for today’s “purpose-driven” young people.

ADELAIDE – These are tough times for the humanities. Too many liberal arts subjects have come to be seen as fusty and irrelevant. Who can afford to invest in a four-year education focusing on the wisdom of the Mayan civilization or the nuances of Japanese poetry? To adapt Churchill’s famous 1939 aphorism about understanding Russia, students today confront a pandemic, wrapped in a technological revolution, inside a climate crisis.

As a proud humanities scholar, I believe that the knowledge my colleagues and I impart is essential to prepare students for future uncertainties. As the past five years have shown, predictions from even our most informed technical experts can easily go awry. The humanities, with their focus on the infinite variety of human experience, offer the best insurance against overconfident forecasters.

But in making the practical case for the humanities – especially when seeking political support – it is not enough to repeat what we know to be true. In Australia, an unsympathetic government has taken aim at the humanities, significantly increasing the cost students pay to study them. The explicit goal is to send a market signal that students’ time is better spent mastering “job-ready” STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. According to then-Minister of Education Dan Tehan – a not-so-proud humanities graduate – the policy would save students from the kind of education that “nearly cost me the opportunity of getting a job.”

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