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A Crumbling Ivory Tower: Are the Humanities Becoming Irrelevant?

February 26, 2009

One of my favorite childhood stories was (and remains) The Neverending Story, the tale of a young outcast boy named Bastian who is drawn by proxy into the fantasy world of the book he is reading. What draws him there is a being known as the Childlike Empress, who lives in a literal ivory tower on high. Her role in the story, however, depended on which version you were most familiar with—Michael Ende’s book, or Wolfgang Petersen’s film adaptation (more later).

I bring up The Neverending Story, and more specifically the Childlike Empress, as a metaphor for the study of humanities—of which most authors have had some form of intimate encounter with over the years. I read an article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times on the humanities in colleges, entitled “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” Cohen’s article suggests—in fact, outright states—that in our current global crisis, the humanities must fight for its very validity and continued existence:

questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency. Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the…“humanities”… Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.

In essence, why should we continue to study the theoretical, insubstantial, and creative elements of human nature and history when they give us no tangible skill set for dealing with reality?

Any writer could tell you why: because humanities are the backbone for our existence as complex creatures, the study of what it is to be human. And the arts, writing perhaps most profoundly, are created on the basis of this question. Fiction, nonfiction, biography or romance, horror or tragedy, self-help or satire, all great books rely upon the ability to find new answers or to ask new questions. I wax poetic, but the truth remains. Without humanities, writing becomes lost in translation.

This is not to say that a person studying engineering, or biology, or computer science, or a person who has never pursued higher education, cannot read and comprehend books. But school curriculums strive to place as much importance on humanities as sciences, occasionally even favoring the former. (While my classmates complained about major requirements, I happily signed up for two semesters of studies in Shakespeare—but I’m a book-reading nerd).

But the humanities have over the years come to represent something less tangible and more intellectual, something that exercises the brain but has no bearing outside of the circle of said intellectuals, growing ever-smaller with time. Cohen notes that the number of students pursuing degrees in the humanities has gradually shrunk since the 1960s, and the number of colleges hiring for positions within these fields of study is declining as well.

And here I finally return to my metaphor of the Childlike Empress in her tower. The outdated model of the study of humanities is like the Empress of the film, locked in her tower, a distant, mysterious and disconnected creature. She is the main element of the plot and yet she feels irrelevant—the very problem that students and their families, college administrators, and even professors themselves are finding with humanities today. Her book’s counterpart, however, recognizes the need to escape the tower and forge her own path, replete with danger and self-doubt, but inevitably the only way to save herself. And Cohen presents this as the humanities’ only option as well—to force its way into the world, to adapt its curriculum to tie classroom lessons in with real job opportunities, and to make the world understand why there must be a necessary unity between the arts and the sciences.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Has humanities-based intellectualism become a luxury? Will liberal arts colleges recover from the stress put on their programs by the economy? What elements of humanities are still important and relevant today?

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