When Senator Marco Rubio claimed that “welders make more money than philosophers” in a November presidential debate, implicit in his statement was the conviction that the humanities lack value and that the end goal of education is a high paying job. And it seems many American leaders agree: In recent years, public education systems have begun shifting their focus from the humanities to STEM, neglecting disciplines rooted in the arts, ideas, and the celebration of human cultural achievement.
In Kentucky, for example, Governor Matt Bevin suggested last month that students of French literature not receive state funding for college. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory echoed the sentiment, saying higher education funding should be not be “based on butts in seats, but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”
While some of these proposals are advertised as only privileging STEM fields—rather than explicitly harming other disciplines—this is often a facade: States are actively making cuts to the humanities and social sciences. This preferential treatment is a dangerous movement for the education system on several fronts.
For one, educational priorities should not be defined by future income alone. Such a figure is inherently speculative and fails to take into account how the job market will evolve in the next ten to fifteen years and beyond. Demand for jobs and skills inevitably changes, and exclusive focus on one set of disciplines suggests the quixotic conclusion that our economic and cultural landscape will remain static forever.
Fostering a range of disciplines in which the humanities continue to have equal billing is the only model that can adequately anticipate the challenges of the future. Even from an economic standpoint, a holistic approach emphasizing the notion of “education for education’s sake” is the most rational choice in the long term.
But the consequences of slashed funds for the humanities are not limited to effects in the distant future. Our neglect for the humanities also intimately affects the continued viability of this nation’s democratic ideals. Failure to sustain a holistic intellectual and cultural education—one that includes the study of the past and of ideas—will ultimately leave citizens ill equipped to engage in the self-reflection and self-criticism that is fundamental to any democratic system.
Commentators on all sides of the political spectrum would agree that one root of our country's current struggles is a failure appreciate the intellectual and cultural ideals that should guide our policies. Whether you think that we have strayed too far from our founding principles of limited government, believe that Americans too often ignore the contemporary legacies of our nation's racial past, or both, your concerns are ultimately rooted in questions of history, philosophy, and human nature often addressed by art and literature. In short, a humanities education is essential for ensuring that the voters of tomorrow are able to engage in open, incisive, and—perhaps most crucially—empathetic intellectual discourse about the fundamental issues underlying the political process.
Of course, the sciences are and will remain vital. But they must be anchored in a educational system that also values the rigorous study of human culture in all its manifestations. It is in all of our best interests—and in the best interest of democracy—to continue to fund the humanities at public universities.
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