Monday, June 4, 2012

Why Study the Arts and Humanities?

I recently returned from Europe following meetings with key partners in our acclaimed International Engineering Program – one of the University of Rhode Island’s most innovative and effective educational programs.  Our program was, in fact, recently featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  My schedule has not been conducive to writing. Commencement occupied practically every moment since returning from the trip. The normal inclination would be to write on an aspect of Commencement, but I wanted instead to take the time to write on another subject.  That topic, in my opinion, is just as important, although perhaps not as obviously so, as educating engineers who are fluent in languages other than English, and who possess genuine cross-cultural competencies.
It appears inevitable, in the current climate, for commencement to stimulate stories in the media about the bleak job market for new graduates.  That is a very real concern for many of our graduates and their families.  What should be done?  Well, practically everyone recognizes that the employment prospects for college graduates are a function of one’s major.  Graduates in science, engineering, a professional field, or business generally do have more options and an easier path to a job directly related to their major.  In contrast, graduates in the arts and humanities are generally believed to have significantly fewer opportunities, especially in this current economy.  There is truth to that; there is also truth to the proposition that our nation could use more graduates in science, engineering, technology, and math. One consequence is that, for as long as I can remember, parents have been encouraging their kids to major in subjects that have an obvious and demonstrable connection to a job.  Frequently the son or daughter resists or rejects the advice. I saw a lot of this while on the faculty at Amherst College: parents encouraging (or even demanding) that their student prepare for business, medicine, or law – and the student choosing another path.  And that, much more often than not, turned out just fine.
Yes, unemployment and underemployment of college graduates is higher now, and student debt has grown alarmingly.  These are consequences of a severe and prolonged economic downtown coupled with the systematic disinvestment in public higher education by government in America. 
But, study of the humanities and the arts also remains valuable, for a wide variety of reasons. Not least, a strong liberal arts education can provide a valuable foundation for careers in a host of areas, as wonderfully demonstrated by the University of Rhode Island’s student commencement speaker, Mary McGunigal, who majored in Classics but is headed to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.  The skills of critical reading and thinking, strong writing, and effective presentation are essential in practically any career. The ability to learn continuously, to teach oneself, are also more important than ever.  Creativity, a strong work ethic, self-discipline, and teamwork have always been, and will continue to be, keys to success.   All of our majors at the University of Rhode Island provide students the opportunities to develop these attributes.  There is a lot of evidence to indicate that a strong liberal arts education can be the foundation for success after college.  Most notably, even a cursory examination of the worlds of business, health, education, law, communications, and many others reveals that all of them are highly populated by leaders and professionals whose academic backgrounds are in the humanities and the arts. 
Despite this, it is probably natural that in tough economic times students tend to gravitate towards majors that have a more direct connection to employment possibilities. As one possible indicator of this, a recent NSF report showed that graduate enrollments in science, health, and engineering had grown by 30% over the last decade.  On the whole, that is a good thing, I think.  But what if your talents and interests while in college lie in areas other than science, engineering, health, or business?  A well-worn truism, that retains substantial validity in my judgment, is to pursue what you are passionate about, to study those things that you are truly, and deeply, motivated to study. A great example for me is the career of URI’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient, Marlen Suyapa Bodden.  She majored in history and Spanish literature at Tufts. People might have thought that such a double major would be inadequate preparation if you really wanted to build a distinguished career and change the world.  If anyone shared that kind of assessment with Marlen, she did not listen – and consequently our nation and the world are a better place.  I believe that many of the University of Rhode Island’s recent graduates can have a similar impact, regardless of what they may have majored in.  Commencement is the time we most clearly acknowledge and celebrate the truth of that hope.  So I suppose this post turned out to be about commencement after all!