Can The Humanities Be Saved?

With STEM education becoming more of a priority, what happens to the humanities?

Marble bust of Aristotle.
Photo:Wikimedia Commons
Can The Humanities Be Saved?
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Can The Humanities Be Saved?

If you want to think about the way our diminished interest in the humanities amounts to playing with fire, consider the present moment, which includes wind-driven deadly wildfires in Arizona and a tornado in Windsor and the recurrent suggestion that this is "the new normal."

The new normal is incredibly dangerous and getting worse. We have enormous amounts of scientific information that explains why some of this is happening, and what we should do to keep it from getting worse. But as a planet and a nation, we're not doing much. Why? 

Does anyone seriously doubt the missing piece lies in the humanities? A society that was constantly engaged in thought and debate about the meaning of life would never be so complacent. A people capable of attaching significance to lives lived in the future wouldn't sit on its hands. Maybe we're getting rid of the humanities because it's scary to think and easier not to.

You can join the conversation. E-mail or Tweet us @wnprcolin.




I want to put my two cents in this very important and interesting discussion in today's radio show. Finally! A show about a subject with very important implications. My son just graduated from Newington High School. NHS is a very fine school that gives kids the chance to have a very well rounded education. But, there may be ONLY one or two things that I would absolutely change if I could. One of them is the fact that the school DOES NOT OFFER ANY COURSES IN PHILOSOPHY!!! Imagine! We ask kids to write essays and participate in discussions, but we do not always give them ALL the tools that we COULD easily give them. The kids tell me that they cover some of it in other social studies, but you know that there is no way to learn much about it unless the class is specifically Taylor for it.

I hear some of his friend having very interesting conversations. It reminds me that when we are teenagers is exactly when many of us start wondering about subjects like this. What a missed opportunity!



Humanities are falling by the wayside for a number of reasons, chief among them being the move to make higher education fit the current, austere, business- oriented model of education being pushed as a capstone in popular economic and governance perspectives. At first blush, such a move might seem sensible, but much like other examples from this perspective which confuse 'good for the market' with 'good for people', it neglects the fact that humanities matter because of their ability to teach people how to learn and succeed in a rapidly shifting employment market - to say nothing of the intangible value they have across all aspects of life. Although it is certainly important to maintain a strong emphasis on STEM disciplines for our overall education needs, it's also important to remember the utility a complete education can bring to the table, lest we make a nation of mono- skilled robots in constant need of very expensive reprogramming every time a field undergoes a major shift in direction - which seems to be weekly, these days.


Dear Colin,

There are many reasons why the Humanities are less studied now that before. I believe the economy has a lot to do with it, and I personally know three family who all discouraged their obviously talented young musician not to pursue music. They all became music educators, which is fine and dandy by everyone, but it was real struggle to keep these young people engaged in the music for which they had trained since grade school, with their fearful parents not wanting to 'waste' their money as their young person gets his/her higher education, (What a concept, huh?).

The Humanities generally aren't well understood by many current newcomers - immigrants, migrants, people who move in from other places, families who are struggling financially latch on to jobs that are much closer at hand and "known", the unknown is scary.

Our educational system is different from what many people have left. It is confusing to people who have been here forever, our school systems need to come out of hiding and be far more central to the communities in which they operate. School concerts should be attended by hundreds of people, who cheer their musicians on and support their efforts, just as much as they do sports events, for instance.

Our educational system is squeezing the life out of the Humanities in grade school and middle school- when young people become aware of art, music, architecture, religion, philosophy- yes, grade and middle schools. In the case of music, the amount of time spent on music is abysmal in many schools. Teachers are so squeezed for a room, for time to teach, squeezed as to what to teach, the way to teach it, the teachers themselves are not able to truly teach what they love to do. And some school boards members couldn't care less.

STEM needs to become STEAM- with the Arts right there in the mix- Music, for instance teaches creativity, leadership, History, Science, Philosophy, self motivation and time management, Math, physical education, and teamwork along with the beauty of what one is working on. The other Arts are just as special and vital for the development of the brain. Music is the only subject that trains the entire brain at the same time.

Teaching the Humanities worked in the 1950-60-70's- and we who were educated then still value these things. Many of us are teachers or administrators of schools and community arts agencies now, trying to help fill the gap left by paltry and misguided school budgets, and trying to give children what they will need to succeed in a whole and beautiful life that will guide our country when they grow up. Children now have the same educational needs as ever- they just aren't being taught. And people forget that they voted out Music and the Arts/Humanities. They assume that these things are being taught- and they aren't. The Arts just aren't happening in many schools systems in Connecticut. And so, we get dulled children, and children whose creativity has been thwarted, whose potential as a human being has been stunted. But just try to get that in a newspaper and editors' eyes glaze over.

My colleagues at the Meriden ArtsTrust, Inc. and I are fighting this. Our Central Connecticut Civic Youth Orchestra is in its eighth season. Our young people go on to college, they are valedictorians, they are in the top 20 in their classes, they understand what is so vital about instrumental music. Eight of them have become or are are becoming Music educators themselves, creating their own new ensembles where ever they are, to share their music and find like-minded musicians, like-minded people. And we also get kids who just like to play for the sheer bliss of it.

We are currently putting together a coalition of Connecticut artists, musicians, teachers, music industry members, community supporters to create "Forte Forward (F6)," to fulfill and enlarge the scope of our mission of "Bringing the Arts to Young People, Bringing Young People to the Arts."

Forte Forward (F6) campaign will engage our communities through sing-ins, play-ins, flash mobs and other planned and spontaneous musical events, designed to bring the arts to people, to help them see what they are missing. I hope you can join us, so that as a result we will show people why their school boards NEED to fund the Arts, our legislature NEED to make creativity a subject worthy of discussion and legislation and to do our part and more to make SURE that our young people are ready for the 21st century. Perhaps you can join us in this most worthy mission? You are heartily invited!

That's my take, I hope we can talk about this more sometime.


Dear Colin:

Among the most important purposes of higher education are: to teach young people to think, to expose them to the widest possible spectrum of human knowledge*, and to provide them with the opportunity to interact with people different from themselves, racially, ethnically, sexually, and economically. Introductory courses in the humanities, and social and hard sciences form the foundation for a lifetime of informed, thoughtful engagement in community and civic life. I worry greatly about the consequences to our society of reducing the breadth requirements in higher education and of replacing on-campus education with internet appointments.

I am not requesting that you read this on the air, but I hope that you will address these concerns. Thanks.


* Do you remember the 101 courses: English, Art Appreciation, Music Appreciation, World History, Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, Biology, etc? They didn't teach you everything, but they gave you a foundation to build upon. Thanks again.


Even before the global economic 'downturn', my income went down with every college degree. Down 20 percent since 2005. Hey, anybody notice how the price of food, heating oil and everything else has gone way up? If I wanted to go back to my exact job working as Education Coordinator at a landmark museum, since the "recession is over" now, I would make 36 percent less. Is it me? I have wonderful references and performance reviews. For brief moments I regret my degrees in the humanities. It is usually when I am at the grocery store or checking the thousand messages on the answering machine from the oil company. Deep down I know my experience in the humanities, made me a better human, even if the people who regularly use the toilets I clean have no idea.

Some people tell me it is my own fault for studying the humanities in college rather than doing something that would make me marketable. The rest of the people act as though they are thinking it. Sometimes I believe it too, but not all the time.


Hi, Colin:

Enjoying your show today!

Thought you might find this interesting. I wrote it back in the “olden days” when I was a reporter at the AP, and it includes some interesting stats on the decrease in humanities degrees and liberal arts:

There’s also some interesting perspective at the end from Susan Herbst about why the humanities matter.


I, like Colin, studied business in the early 1980s because it was practical and was going to be my entree into the business world-a new frontier for women according to my Dad.

This summer I'm taking Ilja Wach's "The 19th Century Novel" course (5 books, 5 weeks with a former dean of Sarah Lawrence College) and I now see the mistake of not studying the classics in public high schools/college. There is an entire world of learning in David Copperfield/Pride & Prejudice/ Anna Karenina/Huck Finn that an accounting class just isn't going to touch upon. Esther Raushenbush, 6th president of Sarah Lawrence, said that college was a place to learn how to be in the world, a place to expand your mind. Studying the humanities is central to accomplishing that. Outstanding course.


Hey Colin!

Great show today--wonderful discussion--but I have one point to offer.

The only thing I have nostalgia for in today's higher education is for the cost of a college degree.

Thirty years ago, I paid $7900 for tuition and room and board at St Anselm College. Simply adjusted for inflation, that would be around $20k in 2013 dollars.

However, like other colleges, the real cost in 2013 for a year at St Anselm is more than $40k and will probably creep up to $50k fairly soon.

When a bachelor's degree requires so much money and so much debt, being an English major like I was (and then all the way, ay yi yi, to a Ph.D.) seems beyond impractical.


I think people are afraid of what majoring in humanities will do to their job prospects. During the times when I've been job hunting, I've often seen descriptions that specify pre-professional majors. (I am a religion major in the marketing communications field.)


Who knew that guests on a show on the humanities could be so feisty?!

This conversation was very interesting to me because I was a humanities major, and my work would be be considered in the humanities. But I don't see why we can't be drawn to both the humanities and the science....they are both important and needed! My daughter, who is going to college this fall, plans to double major in Biology and French, She eats, breaths, talks science all the time, but in a poetic way! And she devours novels and writes her own, and dabbles in the fine arts as well. I would call her well rounded - something that I believe we should all strive for. It makes us more open to the beauty of life and the world in ALL it's forms and complexity.

Thanks for your show every day!