The role of the humanities

October 25, 2017

The University of Toledo hosted Michael Bérubé Oct. 19 in the UT Law Center to talk about the future and importance of the humanities field.


Michael Bérubé is an Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University. He has written ten books including “Life As We Know It,” “The Secret Life of Stories,” and “What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?”


The academic organization, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the training company Heart of the Matter were asked by Congress what political entities, universities and people should do “to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being for a stronger, more vibrant civil society and for the success of cultural diplomacy in the 21st century.”


According to the Heart of the Matter report, funding was cut by 41 percent in four years to support international education and STEM teachers in kindergarten were less well-trained than history teachers in the same grades.


In the same report, the Heart of the Matter concluded that these pieces of evidence suggest a problem and a pattern that will have long-term consequences for the nation.


Bérubé said there is not a decreasing number of people going into humanities.


“There is a zombie myth that the humanities are declining, and I cannot get people to believe that they are not. When I finally had people believing me, the myth was true,” Bérubé said.

Bérubé briefly discussed an article he wrote about an essay by William Chace, professor of English emeritus at Stanford University.


In his 2009 American Scholar essay, "The Decline of the English Department," Chace noted that English accounted for 7.6 percent of all bachelor's degrees in 1970-1971 but only 3.9 percent in 2003-2004.


“But by 2003-2004, when, as Chace lamented, English accounted for only 3.9 percent of bachelor's degrees, that number was almost 54,000. Why was no one writing about how the number of English majors had grown by 20,000 over 20 years—almost a 60-percent increase?” Bérubé wrote in an article.


The humanities can help solve the ethical problems of technology, social contentions and other major global challenges as well, Bérubé said.


“The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender,” Bérubé said, quoting David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times. “To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were


bound to seem less consequential and more boring.”


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