20 June 2013
A PLEA FOR STUDYING THE HUMANITIES
It should come as no shock to anyone not living under a rock that American students have been falling steadily behind students of other developed nations in their understanding of math and science. It turns out that we are falling behind in other areas as well.
Following are excerpts from a PBS Newshour interview with American Academy of Arts and Sciences panel members Richard Brodhead, President of Duke University, and John Lithgow, actor, on the decline in exposure to the liberal arts and the humanities in U.S. schools and universities ~
"We need to remind the world that what makes a person successful are not the things that get you a job the day you graduate. I know almost no one at 40 or 50 who is doing the thing they did the day after they got out of college. And when people end up being able to lead successful and creative lives, it is typically because they had a very broad range of skills that they were able to use in versatile and opportunistic ways as life unfolded. So you shouldn't prepare yourself too narrowly. You think you're being prudent, but it's penny-wise and pound-foolish. Better to develop more parts of yourself, more different skills and abilities, to be prepared for the chances of life.
" .... The first thing we need is for people who know and care about the value of literacy, the value of understanding foreign countries, the value of leading the kind of rich spiritual life you can get through the acquaintance with philosophy and literature and things of that sort."
I could not agree more. In high school I ate up everything in the curriculum ~ math, history, English lit, biology, chemistry, physics, social studies, music, drama. In college I was an omnivore, taking many courses having nothing to do with my major or minor ~ courses in math and the sciences, in the arts and literature. I loved to learn, and I still do.
It saddens me to regard many high school and college graduates today, young people whose understanding of essential, elemental concepts would fit inside my head like a pea inside a watermelon. This is not the students' fault. Our public and higher education systems have failed our youth ~ by placing higher emphasis on rote learning than on thorough understanding, by settling for mediocre, under-trained teachers, and by losing sight of the true value of a well-rounded education. A portion of those who specialize will indeed eventually earn large salaries. But will they be educated, insightful, thinking citizens?
Our intellectual lives should be both broad and deep. We need to read more, listen more, engage more. Learn more. A life in balance.