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Mind Over STEM

With universities around the world cutting liberal-arts programs and even eliminating entire majors such as history, there is every reason to worry about the fate of the humanities. In an era of deepening technological determinism, we are going to need these disciplines now more than ever.

WELLINGTON – Among the expected casualties of the digital revolution is the study of the humanities. Although a focus on human experience in all its diversity has long been a core mission of universities, the liberal arts are increasingly being dismissed as irrelevant to the digital future, or at least to the digital economy. Who would want to invest their time and money studying subjects that are unlikely to “pay off,” either for students or university budgets?

This reasoning, and the anxieties it has provoked, has led to a widespread flight from the humanities, not least in my home country, New Zealand, where higher education suffers from chronic underinvestment from the state. Under the previous government, the ruling National Party placed a big bet on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) with the goal of boosting economic growth and preparing graduates for work in the digital economy. The Universities of Auckland and Otago followed suit, downsizing their humanities offerings. Similar trends are apparent in the United States, where some cash-strapped colleges and universities have stopped offering majors such as history altogether.

The problem for countries like New Zealand is that they lack the Princetons and Harvards with the wealth to protect the humanities against arguments born of a cold but practical market-driven logic. We are unlikely to enjoy the largesse recently bestowed on University of Oxford ethicists and social scientists by billionaire Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone.