María-Eugenia Marín considers how the humanities, which have been at the heart of education for millennia, are needed more than ever to help us understand the world around us with critical thinking and a human touch.
“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”
― Steve Jobs ―
The humanities play a pivotal role in the evolution of society. History, philosophy, language, art, literature, and religion have molded cultures across time—continuously reshaping and transforming the way we live and experience the world—and will continue to do so far into the future. It is when we delve deeply into the humanities that we learn how to think critically and creatively, to ask questions and search for meaning, to express and reflect on feelings and emotions. They reveal to us where we have come from and shed light on where we are going. And in this way, the humanities serve as an ever-expanding intellectual foundation that can create an opening for engaged citizens who have a global and ethical mindset.
Unlike the sciences, which are fact-driven and discipline-specific, the humanities are speculative and unpredictable. They include an intricate web of disciplines that come together to help us understand the multiple dimensions of the human experience. The humanities lend context and meaning to the sciences. This is true not only for the formal natural and life sciences, but also for the social and management sciences. The medical field must train healthcare professionals in the latest scientific knowledge and also provide them with a deep understanding of the human condition. Likewise, business leaders must master the technical tools of doing business while at the same time appreciate the socio-political, economic, and cultural context of where and with whom they operate. If we think about the sciences as a black and white photograph in desperate need of color, the humanities are the reds, the blues, the greens, and the yellows that bring that photograph to life.
The humanities have been at the heart of education ever since the ancient Greeks first applied them to educate their citizens. Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, believed that self-examination using critical thought, asking questions, and nurturing curiosity and a sense of wonder were at the root of acquiring wisdom. In early modern universities dating back to 14th- and 15th-century Europe, humanism studies – studia humanitatis – transformed the curriculum and scholarship of the Middle Ages. Disciplines such as medicine, law, theology, mathematics, physics, and astronomy began to incorporate humanities by emphasizing critical thinking through translation, interpretation, and a broader reflection of classical texts that gave birth to new ideas. Teaching the art of speaking and writing with eloquence, the study of poetry and ethics, and the principles of self-knowledge and self-examination also formed part of this newly incorporated humanities curriculum. The critical mindset imparted by humanism served as a catalyst for changes in universities that led to a more creative university climate in 15th century Europe. This process set the foundation for what we today call the Humanities. Important historical figures such as Andreas Vesalius, Galileo Galilei, and Martin Luther were all products of a humanist education.
If the humanities have formed a key and integral part of teaching and learning for more than seven centuries, why are they so undervalued in higher education today? The number of humanities majors in U.S. universities has been in continuous decline for the last 40 years, being replaced in the last decade by a growing number of STEM students. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded this situation by putting many small colleges, the majority of them liberal arts colleges, in a state of financial upheaval. Sadly, some liberal arts institutions have even had to shut their doors.
Some say that the financial crisis of 2008 turned students away from the humanities in fear of not finding a solid job; others say that the growing cost of education in the US is steering students into fields that offer a higher return on their investment upon graduation. Moreover, the rapid pace of globalization anchored on innovation and technology has shifted education to be STEM-focused. Subjects emphasizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have come to overshadow the humanities.
There are sparks of hope, however. Just like what occurred in 15th-century European universities when humanism studies began to be integrated into a wide variety of classical fields, we are slowly beginning to see a greater integration of the humanities in several non-humanities fields. For example, the discipline of “medical humanities” is growing rapidly and argues that that the arts and humanities, through the study of culture, history, ethics, and behavior, “humanize” healthcare as well as provide tools by which to deconstruct, critique, and influence medical practices and priorities.
Over the last eight years, all graduating medical students in Scotland have been given a copy of Tools of the Trade, a pocket-sized book of poems written to inspire young doctors to not forget that behind the diseases there are real people with real human needs like compassion and empathy. In the book’s foreword, Gavin Francis writes “there’s a great deal of science in medicine – science allied with a healthy dose of human kindness.”
We are also seeing the integration of the humanities in the management sciences and even in the field of engineering. Business today is more than just understanding marketing, finance, operations, and other core areas; it is about human behavior, ethics, cultural differences, the global socio-political climate, as well as the need for reflective and empathic leadership, to list only a few. Similarly, engineering and the humanities have traditionally not been close friends, but there is also growing awareness that engineers need humanities training in subjects like ethics, philosophy, culture, history of technology, and design and critical thinking skills. According to American civil engineer Nathan W. Dougherty, “the ideal engineer is a composite… He is not a scientist, he is not a mathematician, he is not a sociologist or a writer; he may use the knowledge and techniques of any or all of these disciplines in solving engineering problems.” Of course, since Dougherty’s lifetime, many more women have entered the field.
Thanks to our constantly changing technology-focused world, the humanities are needed in our classrooms now more than ever, to help us make sense of this world with balance, perspective, and most importantly, humaneness. The humanities need to be an essential part of a well-rounded education, one that starts in primary school and continues throughout a person’s life. Education is a personal journey and the humanities light our way. We are now confronting major global challenges that, yes, require global solutions. The current health crisis has clearly shown this. We must draw from the humanities to find inspiration and purpose and train a future generation of global reflective leaders that understand the complexities and inter-connectedness of the world we live in. Knowledge without critical reflection is nothing but an empty word.