Why the humanities should be one subject

The Campus on a Hill

UC Berkeley professor Robert Alter wrote back in 1972, “More and more, America comes to seem the land of perpetual identity crisis.” If the professor had chosen to direct his remarks on our campus, I imagine he might have said the very soul of UC Berkeley — the humanities — is more and more caught in a crisis of identity.

As a humanities major and senior, I sometimes feel I’m about to enter an economy supported by the weight of wrought iron with only an ability to recite A. E. Housman lyrics (indeed, a needlessly arcane reference).

“So be it,” I declare, as I fall back on the common humanities talking points we’ve been counseled in: “Students in the humanities learn how to think critically and communicate their ideas clearly, and those transferable skills lead to rewarding lives and careers in every field of endeavor,” writes Harvard University President Drew Faust.

But are the skills of an ordinary humanities major as grand and noble as Faust declares?

The Stanford Humanities Center provides three headlines explaining why the humanities matter: “Insights Into Everything,” “Understanding Our World” and “Bringing Clarity to the Future.” I read this with the cynical thought that only in the humanities could such an enormous and unsubstantiated claim be made.

This suggests to me two problems: the exaggerated defense of the humanities and its total lack of connection to how it’s studied at colleges such as UC Berkeley.

One of the great problems with the humanities is the belief in its special claim to creative and critical thinking. How baffling this appears, when the most exciting innovations today are occurring in STEM. The humanities student is actually doubly burdened by not only graduating without in-demand skills, but also a dubious claim to a certain “criticalness” or creativity that others lack. There is much to be said about a student of the past, but they’re generally better equipped to interpret what’s come before as opposed to what’s next.  

We say, wrongly I think, that the humanities are a universal discipline that can offer insight, understanding and clarity in every field of endeavor. But then we divide the study of the humanities into majors, so graduates can’t even claim wide insight within the humanities — let alone everything else.

If the humanities are to have any value as a universal discipline, then it ought to be taught as one subject at the undergraduate level. Then perhaps, our defense of the field may not sound so comical as to merit a response that resembles a game of whack-a-mole.

If the humanities are to be unique for the kind of thinking it fosters, then they need to be uniquely expansive in their coverage of subjects, methods and research. In very humanistic fashion, I shall suggest three reasons why teaching the humanities as one subject would offer something specialization cannot.

First, it is difficult to be able to think critically on any single humanities discipline without a working knowledge of the others. Imagine trying to understand Renaissance history without a basis in the classics, or the classics without a basis in philosophy. Perhaps counterintuitively, expanding the methods of inquiry will actually allow for a more penetrating analysis of each field. Promoting interdisciplinary study and research would give the budding humanist a uniquely adaptive and clever mind.

Second, introducing a broad humanities course of study will foster a wider learning community than is currently possible by teaching disciplines in isolation. Humanities subjects tend not to promote group learning and collaboration. After all, the humanist’s laboratory is the library — the place people go to avoid chatter. A common course of study will foster dialogue and communication. Strange then, that this vital skill is among the most neglected in the academe today.

Finally, interdisciplinary study of the humanities is good for students entering the job market. It would truly confer a degree unique in its adaptability, critical analysis and rigor. And if this is not enough on its own, consolidating the course material may free students up to pursue other fields to round off their resume.

This is all easier written than implemented. And it would require a great deal of rethinking in the way the humanities are taught. Would a humanities course be structured around different approaches to a single social question? A long-term research project? It may simply start by implementing “breadth requirements” across key humanist fields.

I can’t profess to have all the answers, despite the claims of omnipotence the Stanford Humanities Center wishes to confer on me — although I’d take it after a few beers. Nor do I think this great endeavor I propose will allow the student to understand the world completely without knowledge of any number of additional subjects, such as financial markets, data science and management.

What I can say is that the world is an enormously complicated, specialized place. And if the power of the humanities is in its comprehensive view of our world, then shouldn’t it be taught a little more expansively? I believe so.

Ismael Farooqui writes the Friday blog on campus culture in a time of institutional crisis. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishfarooqui.