Saturday, January 16, 2010

Making College Relevant

The January 3 2010 issue of the New York Times contained a story entitled “Making College ‘Relevant.’” It details the pressures on universities to justify their programs in the current economic climate. Increasingly administrators—and the general public—are demanding that university programs do a better job of preparing students for their future employment.

Many people assess the value of an academic field in terms of job preparation. They wrongly assume that the humanities offer little in terms of job skills. As several people argue in the story, however, the humanities contribute greatly to future employment. Employers do not want students to over-specialize in their youth, but to have a broad range of skills. Some of those skills included:
• Critical thinking
• Clear use of language
• Educating people for a lifetime, and not merely as job preparation

As people mentioned in the story, these are areas the humanities excel at teaching.

Some of the news items are troubling, such as the closure of programs in philosophy and classics, which are central to university education. The explanation offered for closing philosophy is equally troubling; the perception that philosophy is an essential program “has lost some credence among students.” Thus, students’ opinions on the field’s value now determine the curriculum.

If students and the general public do not see the relevance of a field of study, then there is indeed a problem. The answer is not for humanists to dig in our heels and reiterate old arguments. We need to conceive of ours fields in new ways and make a better case for them to a skeptical public (skeptical in my opinion, not hostile). As the story shows, many people are currently addressing the importance of the humanities. The fact that more people are dealing with the question gives me hope.