I find this to be a fascinating question to arise within a university. After all, higher education exists precisely because of the humanities: the ancients believed that the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic quite literally set a person free to be a productive citizen, eventually giving rise to the university as we know it. (Even to comprehend the previous sentence requires that the reader understand matters of history, government, and philosophy, which are, of course, fundamental to the humanities.)
The arts and humanities are inextricable from our lives yet we do not tend to recognize this basic fact even though they surround us at every moment. The toothbrush I used this morning, the car in which I drove to work, and the clothes I’m wearing were all refined through the process of design, which is a subset of the arts. The arts and humanities pervade our daily existence so completely—not only designed objects, but in our entertainment, communications media, the laws by which we live, the ideas we share and the language that allows us to share them—the very fabric of our society is woven by the humanities. No aspect of our lives is untouched by these essential fields of study.
This is not to diminish the importance of the STEM disciplines—without them, we would not have the quality of life that we now enjoy. I would never argue against funding for scientific research or try to persuade anyone that we should reduce our focus on these essential areas of academic inquiry. However, a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences indicates that university research in STEM disciplines accounts for 99.52% of available funding; in other words, for every $100 awarded in research grants, the humanities receive $0.48.
Based on my observations as a university researcher, I believe the arts and humanities are worthy of research funding. I also strongly feel that these essential fields of study have inherent value beyond their instrumental purpose in creating well-rounded citizens or allowing us to develop aesthetically pleasing products. The arts and humanities are among the paths by which we seek truth, an idea in continual flux and therefore in need of perpetual investigation. My research has allowed me to investigate some of the most innovative arts-integration programs imaginable, and I have seen what amazing things can transpire when the boundless creativity and innovation of the arts meets other academic domains. Truly, the work transpiring on campuses around the country is simply astounding.
Science can show us infinite possibilities, but humanities can ground us in the implications of those developments. One needs only to watch Jurassic Park for an illustration of this key concept: just because we possess the technological capability to accomplish something does not mean that we should act upon it. The humanities allow us to raise the moral and ethical questions that must be asked before embarking upon a voyage of discovery. The arts allow us to envision the journey in the first place.
As for the criticism that graduates with degrees in the arts and humanities lack opportunities in their chosen professions, I argue that this may be indicative of larger questions in higher education. Does a college degree have intrinsic value apart from an instrumental purpose? Does earning a degree with comparatively few job prospects mean that a person’s education has failed? Perhaps we need to consider how colleges and universities can make better connections between students’ programs of study and their professional options in the adult world. Because creativity, innovation, and collaboration are so prized by industry, perhaps a greater proportion of students in all majors should have the opportunity to participate in internships, not only those in business or STEM disciplines. Perhaps we need to inform all students, regardless of their majors, about realistic job prospects in their area of academic interest and provide them with specific strategies for securing those positions. Perhaps we should begin to question our underlying assumptions about disciplinarity and mono-disciplinary majors, broadening students’ educational opportunities beyond arbitrary departmentally imposed boundaries. These questions need answers, but this is not the forum for that discussion.
So, why should we value the arts and humanities in a society that demands technological and scientific achievement? The answer is that the bodies of knowledge encompassed under the umbrella of university study are much like a hand: STEM disciplines may be the thumb, but social sciences, humanities, and the arts represent the fingers. Each is dependent upon the others in order to function. We continue to discover the interconnectedness of human endeavor, uncovering relationships between the sciences and humanities, the arts and technology, and revealing that participation in the arts enhances achievement in other learning areas at every level from pre-school to graduate school, just as study in the humanities produces individuals capable of intelligent participation in a democratic society. The pursuit of a vocational education may lead to a specific career goal, but it is a mistake to overlook the value that the arts and humanities can add to even the most specialized profession. Missing but one of these essential areas of study, the education we offer to our students would be the poorer. To increase academic achievement in all disciplines, we should not consider how we can cut the arts and humanities from our academic offerings but how we can strengthen the connections between all areas of inquiry.