Harmless Drudge: A Biologist Explains Why Study the Humanities
Posted: 20 November 2010 07:38 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A solid explanation of why the Humanities is important, from a scientific perspective.

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Posted: 21 November 2010 10:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Most of that seems reasonable but this paragraph told me that the author and I are not on the same page.

“Let’s examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I’m sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn’t have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn’t required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs - something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses. “

This seems to be a plan from a bygone era, and not a better one. In a world of choice, you can’t force students to do subects in the Humanities because you can’t force them to enrol at your institution. If you tell someone who wants to be a zoologist that he has to take to take fine arts subjects if he wants to go to your university, chances are he’ll just go somewhere else. I would think most people who are interested in studying the fine arts don’t want to be lumbered with what would probably seem like pointless esoterica about the physical sciences. In 2010 you can’t be thinking universities exist as some kind of finishing school for producing polymaths and dilettantes with some bias towards their majors.

I realise that this paragraph doesn’t represent the whole of the article, but it stuck in my craw somewhat. I agree with the take home message that universities, and society as a whole, needs the Humanities and must make adequate provision for funding them as a matter of course.

EDIT:
The ad hom does seem to be not only right over the top, but also poorly aimed. Philip’s BA and MA were in history. Chances are he has some familiarity with the figures Petsko quotes.

[ Edited: 21 November 2010 11:12 PM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 22 November 2010 05:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The anti-choice bit bothered me some too. For one thing, I’m not sure it’s true. The usual complaint I’ve heard from engineering students (who typically have tight curricular requirements and no time to take electives) is that they don’t have the opportunity to take a broader selection of courses.

But Philips lack of a Ph.D. surprised me. Certainly, a Ph.D. will not mean a broader view of the humanities. Ph.D. studies tend to be focused, not wide ranging. But it does point to why he was hired, as an administrator and fundraiser. He clearly doesn’t have the background to understand the particular needs of a university. That is an important point. You can’t apply commercial principles to the university and expect good results.

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Posted: 22 November 2010 12:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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You can’t apply commercial principles to the university and expect good results.

There is a way round this, cunningly discovered by at least one overseas university which now, I am told, sells degrees for an undisclosed sum.  This undoubtedly makes sound economic sense: it dispenses with the need for choice as well as lecturers, academic programmes, administrators and university buildings while still meeting its target of producing a certain number of graduates.  After all, how much does it cost to print out one results sheet and one degree scroll?  (There is, of course, the minor problem of academic integrity, but this isn’t a huge issue if budgetary results are the main concern).  Students will be as competent in the arts as they will be in the sciences.  Brilliant!

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