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Who Needs the Humanities?

WARWICK, UK – Nowadays, in country after country, policymakers have become obsessed with the need to strengthen science education. But what about the humanities – all those disciplines (literature, history, languages, and so forth) whose relevance to economic competitiveness is not so obvious?

We need the humanities only if we are committed to the idea of humanity. If the humanities have become obsolete, then it may be that humanity is losing its salience.

I do not mean that we are becoming “less human” in the sense of “inhumane.” If anything, we live in a time when traditionally human-centered concerns like “rights” have been extended to animals, if not nature as a whole. Rather, the problem is whether there is anything distinctive about being human that makes special demands of higher education. I believe that the answer continues to be yes.

Today, it sounds old-fashioned to describe the university’s purpose as being to “cultivate” people, as if it were a glorified finishing school. However, once we set aside its elitist history, there remains a strong element of truth to this idea, especially when applied to the humanities. Although we now think of academic disciplines, including the humanities, as being “research-led,” this understates the university’s historic role in converting the primate Homo sapiens into a creature whose interests, aspirations, and achievements extend beyond successful sexual reproduction.