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We Can't Save the Humanities

By Whan Lee

This piece was supposed to be titled, “How to Save the Humanities.” The humanities are in the midst of a “crisis”—this much is clear. Funding for the arts and humanities is plummeting, and the sciences and social sciences seem to have taken the place of standard-bearers for human knowledge and achievement.

First of all, is this a problem? Research on ancient Cypriot pottery can’t possibly improve the state of humanity more than cancer drug development, right? Advances in computing technology, materials engineering, neuroscience, economic policy, and social psychology surely must be of greater import than discussing the historical implications of eighteenth century English shopkeeping practices.

And they are, if maximizing human longevity and economic growth are society’s primary objectives. In an age of metrics, these and others such as carbon emissions can be measured, and society can thus try to value the return on the investment that is education based on how increasing dollars spent in field X changes relevant metric Y. But for the things that can’t be similarly quantified, it is also harder to be similarly accountable. For one, it is not easy to put into numbers how reading literature or studying history can help us know ourselves and each other better. There is no statistical analysis to be done on “the human condition.”

But that is society, and we are individuals. After all, economics tells us we are self-interested rational actors who don’t actually care about the rest of society. Maybe we just end up studying whatever we like? From the standpoint of college students, it is an easy decision. I suspect that sophomores who are going through concentration crises may scoff at this statement, but on the aggregate, the numbers don’t lie. Over 50 percent of the Harvard freshmen who come in expecting to concentrate in the humanities end up choosing another path. It’s fair to say that this half is not replaced by students who leave engineering for English.

Here’s another number: The income a student going into investment banking or tech can potentially make in their first year? Over $100,000. Trust me, it’s hard to make six figures sitting in a library thinking about Kantian metaethics, and tuition at most colleges is rising faster than inflation. In a post-2008 financial crisis world of global economic uncertainty and growing foreign might (see: China) there is much incentive—pressure, even—to place greater value on the income that one can reap from their major.

A less cynical take might be that in a world of globalized information, we have the tools to ask big questions and solve big problems, and we ambitious millennials want to have a visible impact on the world. The sciences and social sciences seem to be good for synthesizing data—we can discover and invent new things that we can be sure will help people live better. The benefits of studying how Buddhism spread across Asia seem less immediate.

Now, quantitative and scientifically rigorous fields are on the rise both at Harvard and other colleges, and mathematical and statistical coursework is becoming common for even the social sciences. The average student is taking more STEM classes. The arts and humanities are themselves occasionally employing quantitative methods. I don’t think that a future in which the arts and humanities are increasingly comprised of a minority of nerds who are extremely talented and interested in those fields, not unlike those who took math and science courses fifty or a hundred years ago, is impossible. The superstars who carry the mantle of the humanities will do so with extraordinary skill at the most elite and well-funded of institutions, but the subtleties of reading Shakespeare will be lost on most.

The weird thing is, most jobs don’t actually require high-level math and science knowledge, and it is not obvious to me that STEM majors actually teach critical and analytical thinking better than the arts and humanities. Much of it is likely job signaling. Being a better organic chemist may or may not make one a better doctor, and acing that econometrics final may or may not make one a better investment banker. But then again, it would be harder to argue that English majors are better humans than biology majors.

President Drew G. Faust argues that the valuation of education is itself meaningless, that knowledge must be pursued for its own sake, rather than its applications. Maybe, but a capitalist world does not tend to think in this way. The changes we are undergoing seem to be irreversible, at least in the short term. Perhaps we will reach a point where society feels that understanding cross-cultural dynamics and national histories is more valuable than understanding how many genes contribute to a certain type of cancer, and that to move humanity forward in directions that cannot be quantified, the arts and humanities are critical. Maybe it will be too late by then. Lots of maybes.

Whatever the case, with the increasing commoditization of education, it is clear that we cannot save the humanities as we know them. But maybe we should. With the loss of these fields, we may be losing more than we think.

Whan Lee ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Neurobiology concentrator in Kirkland House.

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