Is studying the humanities a luxury?

On November 8, 2010, Tracy Jan for the Boston Globe wrote that the “humanities are hurting” in higher education institutions around the world. In the article titled “Colleges aim to revive the humanities,” she highlights how major colleges and universities are working against the grain to revive literature, arts, philosophy, history, and religion departments among others.

Jan writes, “In these difficult economic times, the argument for the humanities can sound, to some, impractical and elitist. Without the humanities, though, college presidents say they worry that students won’t develop the kind of critical thinking, imagination, and empathy necessary to solve the most pressing problems facing future generations.”

Still Harbor was founded out of a sense that, in fact, many people end up yearning for the tools of analysis and reflection that are most often developed in studying the humanities. They discover that the questions posed in the study of literature, history, religion, or philosophy are indeed questions that remain unanswered by science and business, and furthermore, they are questions that often cannot be ignored on either a personal, professional,  or political level.

We conjecture that it is often by developing a dynamic understanding of the historic and present day frameworks that help us qualitatively document and analyze the human condition that policy makers, business leaders, doctors, engineers, and scientists have moved their disciplines forward. Still think it is a luxury? Then we propose considering the reverse: aren’t the ideas of philosophers or theologians more relevant and resonant with modern day society when they integrate an understanding of modern business principles and scientific fact? 

A historic review would likely demonstrate that a liberal arts education that surveys a wide variety of subjects and teaches interdisciplinary ways of thinking through problems both qualitatively and quantitatively has long been of utmost importance to development and innovation in the United States. The integration of the study of humanities into other disciplines and the preservation of the humanities as subjects with inherent value and application in the professional world may end up becoming higher education’s major challenge of the 21st century.

Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, argues that we are at the dawn of the conceptual age where creativity and design matter, where seeing old ideas in new light makes a difference, and where higher value will be placed on people who can transform information into concept versus simply process it as computers now do so well.

Even Alan Greenspan has alluded to this shift to a conceptual economy. In a convocation speech from 1997 at the University of Connecticut he discusses the apparently “insatiable” demand for “impalpable services” and he highlights that the increasingly disparate pay for people with the same level of education suggest that “broader cognitive skills and conceptual abilities have become increasingly important on a wide scale, and that basic credentials, by themselves, are not enough to ensure success in the workplace.” Since the late nineties, we’ve seen this come true as we place high value on design innovation, as information is publicly exchanged and improved upon for free, and as we feel the pressure of needing to develop truly innovative solutions to health care and public education.

So, it seems the skills of design, interpretation, and multiple perspectives that are so often cultivated while studying the arts and humanities might matter a lot in today’s economy of “abundance,” “automation,” and “outsourcing” (Daniel Pink’s terms). At Still Harbor, we bring these questions to the forefront in working with future leaders, helping them test their logic behind their thinking, integrate purpose with pragmatism, and transform beliefs into ideas and then into action.

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