Hands off my Humanities

Recent economic developments have forced humanities departments across the country to defend their positions more fiercely than ever. With the market turned south and funding pulling a Houdini, money needs to be redistributed in higher education. Many institutions have chosen to cut humanities first because of its perceived lack of practical application.

The popularity and size of the humanities has reached dangerous lows. The humanities, a grouping of several subjects including writing, the arts, language and history, peaked in enrollment during the 1960s. Today’s enrollment has shrunk from almost 20 percent during that era to less than 10 percent, according to the Humanities Indicator Prototype, which tracks the state of the arts and humanities over time by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody’s investors found that 5 percent of schools have instigated a total hiring freeze on humanities faculty while 43 percent have begun a partial freeze.

The humanities department should not suffer such cutbacks simply because it does not have an easily-drawn connection to the real world. It is filled with practical application and provides many vital components for education. Cutting it could result in the loss of other valuable programs. Specifically, its emphasis on writing and communication is invaluable and should be incorporated into all majors.

Universities cutting humanities classes on the principle that they do not have direct value would mean the loss of sports and extracurricular activities. Many humanities majors do not seem to have applicable real-world benefits. English majors cannot have a career in English the same way a business major can have a career as a CEO. They must either become a professor or turn to a separate but related career, such as writing. Those who major in the arts are destined for a lifetime of struggle and uncertainty. Many actors and musicians give up their dreams for office jobs later in life. Since so few people can achieve such lofty dreams, why bother teaching them these skills in the first place? We bother because an English major establishes superior writing skills and drama majors learn to speak in public, both of which are useful in any situation.

Sometimes establishing a direct link between the humanities department and its real-world benefits is difficult, but that does not make them any less important. In fact, it may be of more importance to remember indirect links, given their subtlety. Imagine if we cut recess from schools because they did not teach children immediately applicable knowledge. They would not learn the value of exercise or how to play well with others. We would be left with emotionally stunted children who confine themselves indoors.

In fact, if we were to cut away all programs that have no direct connections to preparing students for the real world, we should eliminate sports and many extracurricular activities. This would be a travesty because sports establish character, leadership and communication for the team members while providing an opportunity for students to bond. They increase student affection for the campus and the overall enjoyment of the learning experience.

Without extracurricular activities like student council, career counseling, charity programs or the Anteater Recreation Center, students would be unable to broaden their horizons, learn to multitask or relieve stress at the gym.

The most important reason to maintain a healthy humanities program is the most valuable lesson its subjects have to offer. A humanities-based education teaches excellent writing and communication skills. Professor Sharon Block wisely told me that you can be the smartest person in the world, but if you cannot communicate, all that knowledge means absolutely nothing. I am constantly amazed at how many of my classmates are incapable of writing solid essays or even speaking in public. In every career in the world, you will at some point need to convey your thoughts through writing or the spoken word.

Without humanities, we risk quality education for a generation of students. If we begin to cut anything that does not have an easily observable benefit, we risk losing our student perks, sports and extracurricular activities. Once we cut the humanities themselves, thousands of students will cease to learn skills integral to any career, not just those in the realm of humanities.

Kevin Pease is a fourth-year psychology and social behavior major. He can be reached at kpease@uci.edu.