Education:The Humanities Crisis

By Andrew Delbanco 14/11/2013-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

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

But such a narrow, economics-based view fails to account for the larger questions of
value that societies worldwide are facing. To be sure, progress in any field, from
commerce and communications to health and environmental science, will become
increasingly dependent on technological innovation, and thus on the high-order
skills – acquired through intensive technical training – that drive it.

It is also true, however, that such training does not provide an adequate foundation
for addressing the more abstract, but profoundly important, questions that
ultimately must guide global policy and decision-making. For example:

· How can the imperative of economic development be reconciled with the need
to limit climate change?

· What does national sovereignty mean in a world where diseases, pollutants,
and terrorists cross national borders at will?

· Are there universal human rights that transcend conflicting claims of
particular cultural traditions?

· How should limited resources be distributed in order to provide
opportunity and hope to young people, while treating the elderly with dignity and

· What are a country’s obligations to refugees fleeing from persecution,
poverty, or strife elsewhere?

· How should we balance individual liberty and collective security?

In answering such questions, advances in science and technology (for example, new
methods of energy production, surveillance, or online learning) will have a key role
to play. But moral and ethical questions never yield fully to technical solutions;
they also require an understanding of humanity’s social and cultural heritage.
Science can help us to attain the life we want, but it cannot teach us what kind of
life is worth wanting.

In short, each side in the current education debate is half right. As human affairs
become increasingly complex and morally exigent, future generations will need both
scientific and humanistic learning – and they will need them more than ever.

Fortunately, promising new models for making education more coherent and capacious
are emerging. Yale University and the National University of Singapore have worked
together to establish Yale-NUS, Singapore’s first liberal arts college. Led by a
literary scholar and an astronomer, this new residential college aims to break down
interdisciplinary boundaries and enable students to learn from one another.
Likewise, Quest University in Canada encourages students to bring both scientific
and humanistic knowledge to bear on today’s most pressing problems.

Similar efforts have been underway for years in the US. For example, North Carolina
State University’s Benjamin Franklin Scholars program – a collaboration between the
College of Engineering and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences – aims “to
produce well-rounded professionals who are analytical problem-solvers, ethical
decision-makers, and effective communicators.” Unfortunately, such programs largely
lack the visibility and influence needed to shape educational reform.

It is time to abandon the “either/or” discourse that pits science against humanities
– which the British chemist and novelist C.P. Snow identified more than a
half-century ago as an obstacle to human progress. It is time to seek out best
practices that bridge this putative divide, and scale them up.

In the important work of adapting educational institutions for the future, we must
not lose sight of their core mission as articulated in the past. No one has
expressed that mission better than Benjamin Franklin, a man of letters and a
scientific innovator, who defined education as the quest for “true merit.”

“True merit,” Franklin wrote, consists in “an inclination joined with an ability to
serve mankind, one’s country, friends, and family; which ability is…to be acquired
or greatly increased by true learning; and should, indeed, be the great aim and end
of all learning.” This is an aspiration that should be renewed for every generation.

Andrew Delbanco, Director of American Studies at Columbia University, is the
author of College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be.

Project Syndicate, 2013.