For the love of humanities -

For the love of humanities

The liberal arts can be invaluable when students are encouraged to think critically



Just saying the word makes my coffee-pouring hand start to tingle.

But are we history/philosophy/literature buffs really destined for a life behind the counter at Starbucks? Is the inherent value of a soft science subject essential to the holistic self? Or has post-secondary ideological warfare destroyed any worth to be found in Sociology 101?

Those seem to be the questions on the public mind these days. Paul Wells from Maclean’s and Margaret Wente from the Globe and Mail both printed pieces on the value of the liberal arts course a few weeks ago. (Note: all further references to “liberal arts” should be accompanied by a hissing sound.) They’re interesting reads, with starkly opposing views. You can check them out here and here if you want, but I’ll summarize below.

Wells’ “In Praise of the Squishy Subjects,” which was originally written for the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, emphasizes the value of soft sciences. He uses examples to show how funding research in fields like criminology and sociology can offer economical return, though that’s not really his main point. After all, “No social scientist can win a fight for scarce funds if the debate is framed in terms of return on investment,” Wells writes, “because nobody who will make the investment will be able to tear their gaze away from the competition’s lab coats and microscopes.”

Instead, emphasizes Wells, the value of a “squishy subject” is in its ability to evoke critical thinking.

If you spend a few years wrestling with the idea of society as propounded by Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rousseau and Marx, you come away with a better understanding of all the alternative ways our own society might choose to configure itself, with their attendant risks.

[. . .]

This sort of study instills in the student an appreciation for the richness of our human enterprise. It shows that the way we live is not the way we have always lived, nor is it the way everyone lives. It demonstrates the role of ideas and the possibility of massive change.

You never know what you’ll need to know, Wells points out. And if you’ve studied the ambiguities of the social sciences, you’ll be a lot more comfortable making connections, accepting the possibility of multiple answers, and thinking outside the box.

But ask Camille Paglia about the value of the contemporary social science course and you’ll get a totally different answer. Paglia, a social critic and professor of Humanities and Media Studies at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, was interviewed by Margaret Wente for her article “A landscape of death in the humanities.” In the Q&A piece, Paglia argues that the current trend toward hyperfocused humanities courses (Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, etc.) has eroded the overall purpose of higher education, which, she says, is to provide a broad overview and foundation for learning. She says:

I’ve met fundamentalist Protestants who’ve just come out of high school and read the Bible. They have a longer view of history than most students who come out of Harvard. The problem today is that professors feel they are far too sophisticated and important to do something as mundane as teach a foundation course.

[. . .]

But instead of that, the kids get ideology. They’re taught that global warming has been caused by factories. They have no idea there’s been climate change throughout history. And they’re scared into thinking that tsunamis are coming to drown New York.

So, which is it?

Are humanities courses providing us with the necessary tools to critically evaluate the world around us? Or are we being subjected to a kind of lecture-hall indoctrination where groupthink masquerades as ideological innovation?

I think it’s somewhere in the middle.

It’s no secret that universities lean left. Do a quick search of “Campus Pro-Life,” “Conservative Conspiracy,” or “Hero Fund” if you have any lingering doubt. And sometimes (read: often) that ideology makes it into the classroom. I took a Psychology of Gender course where I was lectured on the horrors of the Harper government, a Sociological Perspectives course where I learned about Canada’s racist immigration policies, and an English Lit course where I was told that my sandwich was a product of enduring colonial pressure and oppression.

But was there anything wrong with that? No. (Sorry Paglia, Wente.)

High school is for facts and broad overviews. After all, most teens are more interested in finding a prom date than comparing Bush’s 2001 Patriot Act to Hilter’s 1933 Reichstag Fire Decree. (Aside–it’s fascinating to compare the actual texts of the two documents. That is, if you’re not buying a corsage.) But university is a different type of school. Bring on the ideology, I say. Indoctrinate me; give it your best shot! Students should know what people are thinking and why they’re thinking it. Even if those people happen to be professors.

So does that mean I’m one with Wells in praising the “squishy subjects?” Not exactly. Ideology in the lecture hall is fine, but not in the exam room. The permeability of that junction is an issue I’ve encountered with more than one social science course. Professors are human, and sometimes their biases leak through their red pens. In those cases, “critical thinking” can really mean “eloquent regurgitation.”

For example, (even though my Intro to Philosophy course convinced me of the weakness of the anecdotal argument, I’m going to break the rule just this once) I had a sociology professor who awarded my “critical” analysis of a book she revered with an unbecoming letter.  I felt trapped; was I to stick to my guns and continue to challenge her, or give in to her game and write what she wanted?

I decided to swallow my impudence. I’m not proud of it, but when you’re paying thousands of dollars for a piece of paper, you let pragmatism trump principles. It’s too bad, because I know I would have gained much more in the long run by exercising my reasoning skills.

Soft sciences can breed intelligent, worldly critical thinkers. But only if students are encouraged to break the mold. Unfortunately, I’ve found that’s only sometimes the case. Ideology in the classroom should be a framework from which to build, not adhere. And innovation, not A’s should be the motivation. We don’t need another 20,000 undergraduate papers dissecting The Feminine Mystique this year. But maybe one hypothesizing the effect of mass underground distribution of the book in modern day Iran. (Counterfactual thinking–for shame, I know.)

A little tolerance for a lot of imagination–that’s what I think liberal arts (commence hissing) should be all about.

– Photo by velkr0