October 21, 2013

Our View: The humanities still teach marketable skills

The University of Maine is showing that the old subjects still matter in a rapidly changing world.

Once upon a time, there was little debate about what made up a complete education.

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Much has changed over the centuries, but the ability to reason and communicate has not been replaced by technology.

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A well-educated person should have read Homer, Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare. She should also know something about Caesar, Charlemagne, Peter the Great and Napoleon. She should understand Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein, speak a second language, appreciate Beethoven and Matisse, be able to find the standard deviation and, most importantly, write about it all.

The story is told differently today: A college education costs a fortune, and it better translate into a good job and a higher income. The liberal arts are seen as a luxury for the rich, while those serious about their futures are advised to head to the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – if they want to have a place in the middle class.

Public colleges and universities are under constant pressure to produce graduates with the right skills to find work right away – though the definition of the “right skills” keeps changing.

It’s about time to bring things back into balance, and a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences does just that. “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation” makes the case that the critical thinking and communication skills that are developed in the liberal arts serve graduates well when dealing with a rapidly changing world. Being able to think creatively, communicate and use good judgment are exactly the skills employers want new employees to bring with them on the first day on the job.

The report is especially well-timed for Maine, as it coincides with a new effort by the University of Maine to reach out to schools, businesses and cultural institutions to make the case for an education based in the humanities.

That’s not to say that everyone should be an art history major or that the university should be teaching the same books the same way as was done 100 years ago. We are in the middle of an information revolution that has affected every aspect of communication, and it makes sense that the way we teach about history or literature should be affected by that change.

The public institutions of higher education are under intense pressure to respond to the marketplace. The ongoing efforts by UMaine and the Academy of Arts and Sciences show that a liberal arts education is one of the best ways to do that.

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