August 15, 2013

President Skorton, Yo-Yo Ma, George Lucas: Humanities Are ‘Critical’ to Education

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For once, there’s good news for English majors. Cornell President David Skorton joined Yo-Yo Ma, George Lucas and other prominent Americans in a report earlier this summer that declared the humanities and social sciences are “critical” for a modern education.

“We are both strong advocates for science and technology, but we believe that the social sciences and humanities are critical components of a 21st century education — and a sound investment in our collective future,” Skorton and fellow report collaborator Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, said to USA Today. “They are part of the main act.”

Although technical skills are highly sought after, both the business and academic worlds are looking to hire people based on their abilities to innovate, think critically and work with a range of people — skills that a humanities education can provide, Skorton and Augustine said.

“Colleges need to make a more compelling case for liberal arts education and then make sure they are delivering what they promise,” Skorton and Augustine said. “Science is essential — but science alone cannot make the tough decisions that impact us as humans.”

The committee that wrote the June report, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, was formed in 2011 in response to Democratic and Republican lawmakers’ requests to develop strategies to improve education in the humanities.

The resulting report, called “The Heart of the Matter,” stresses three goals: to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy,” “foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong” and “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.” The report states that the US needs to focus its energies into the humanities and social sciences in a way that parallels a recent surge in attention to science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

In light of both the report and Skorton’s affirmation of the humanities and social sciences, students at Cornell reflected on the various ways the recommendations could translate to University policies.

Lisa Liu ’15, a Student Assembly representative for the College of Arts and Sciences, said she thinks it is important that Cornell’s graduation requirements continue to include taking courses in the humanities.

“Cornell’s system of promoting required humanities classes for graduation, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences, is extremely efficient in producing educated, well-rounded individuals,” she said.

Liu, who is a double major in chemistry and biology, said she believes STEM fields and the humanities, while different, can coexist and even work together successfully.

“Science and technology help propel the future, but research is useless if one does not consider the applicability and benefits to life,” Liu said. “The humanities and STEM fields go hand in hand.”

Noah Tulsky ’16, another Arts and Sciences representative for the S.A., said he feels like that some of his peers look down on the humanities.

“When I first arrived at Cornell, I remember telling somebody that I intended to major in history, and immediately the person responded by asking what I planned to do with that,” Tulsky said. “As someone who had always valued the principle of learning for the sake of learning, I was actually upset to learn that so many freshmen were thinking from such a pre-professional perspective even in their first day of college.”

Although many of his peers are taking courses that adhere to a specific career path, Tulsky, a double major in government and economics, says he plans to “take a number” of broad English, history and philosophy classes before graduating. Tulsky said he believes it is important that that humanities are often taught in smaller, more intimate classes than the sciences.

“Humanities thrive in a small classroom setting that encourages students to ask questions and debate; lectures don’t necessarily cut it,” Tulsky said.

Programs at Cornell such as the Society for the Humanities and College Scholars, as well as the rising of Klarman Hall — a new building for the humanities — are “huge steps in the right direction” for the humanities, Tulsky added. He said, however, that he wishes the University would “really publicly show how humanities students can get good jobs too.”

“Look at a bunch of the partners at a place like McKinsey, and you’ll find quite a few philosophy and history majors,” Tulsky said. In a competitive job market, it would reassure humanities students if the University highlighted more of its humanities students’ career paths, he said.

According to Prof. Tim Murray, comparative literature, director of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, an education in the humanities remains a great value for not only students but also universities. Humanities faculty regularly teach four to five courses a year across the country, while science faculty may teach just one or two because of their research obligations.

“Universities rarely recoup the high costs of labs and buildings maintained by the sciences,” Murray said. “So in response to which disciplines are a ‘better value’ for students, the answer is fairly clear.”

Murray said that the interactions students have with their peers and their professors in small classrooms is one of the biggest benefits of a humanities education.

“Students will find that they are much more likely to respond to calls of in-class professors and peers to raise the standards of their thinking and creativity and to profit from suggestions for improvement than they would, say, in the context of online learning platforms,” Murray said. “I hope that [humanities students] will come to value their classroom experiences at Cornell as breeders of exciting thinking between your peers and professors [and] as arenas for the development of critical writing skills, as well as creative research tools.”

Noah Rankin is a senior news writer for The Sun. He can be reached at nrankin@cornellsun.com.

Original Author: Noah Rankin

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