A blue-ribbon committee, appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, published the results of a two-year study, concluding the tree of knowledge is leaning toward degrees in fields of technology, the sciences and business, majors culminating in jobs.
Twenty years ago, college freshmen were beginning their Renaissance journeys, bending over heavy tomes of literature and languages, of history, on the path to liberal arts degrees. Today, their number has dropped like a stone.
A writer/professor published these numbers recently. At Pomona College, in classes of over 15,000 students, 16 graduated as English majors. The number of college seniors majoring in English literature at Yale dropped from 165 in l991 to 62 in 2012.
Yet we know those in management positions in finance often end their days with a headache and a plea to: “Send me someone who can write!”
My friend Ben Ladner, always the smartest guy in the room, is the former president of The National Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Sciences and a past president of American University in Washington, D.C.
He has given speeches all over the world on the tools and values of education, on the gifts of being grounded by a life enriched through art and literature. I asked him to weigh in on the fate of the humanities.
“Letting the humanities slide into irrelevance is not an abstract curriculum issue,”
Ben wrote. “It is taking the axe to the roots of our personal and national identity.” [Studying the humanities] “is profoundly communal and civic, which is why requiring a grounding in the humanities for each generation is so vital.”
Ben added, “I learned long ago, and am still learning, how conversation, writings, artistic creations and insights and expressions of love and friendship summon me, not just to respond, but to come to myself, anew. That, in a word, is what the humanities are all about.”
He believes it is a mistake to define our children’s choices by asking them to choose between “the supposedly intellectually and economically ‘soft’ humanities versus the ‘hard’ sciences and technology.”
As a former professor of philosophy and religion with a Ph.D. from Duke, Ben Ladner’s background in the liberal arts led him to the decision-making and visionary role of president of a large university, a place educating students from around the world.
Ben can read a spread sheet, quote poetry and talk to a crowd with the fervor of a fund-raiser or the empathy of a professor whom you would trust with your freshman college student leaving home.
The same writing professor we met at the beginning of this column, the one with the dire statistics on the humanities, has more to say on liberal arts majors like Ladner, whose successes are, in part, bound to writing and speaking through “a rational grace and energy in a conversation with the world around [them.]”
“No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy,” Verlyn Klinkenborg, the professor, writes, “but everyone who possesses it, knows it is a rare and precious inheritance.”
Ben ended his note to me by writing of “the longing to embrace the fullest possibilities of ourselves.” His words reminded me of the captains of industry who confess they feel separated from the lives they intended to live.
Granted, there is the excitement of discovery bound to research and the puzzle-solving satisfaction of mastering a computer program, but what happens when we ignore the creative center in ourselves by narrowing our interests, excluding the arts and the written word, disconnected from both?
The last words are Ben’s. “Embedded in the contours of the humanities is the gift of the freedom to be who we are. [We] must speak or write to find out if what we have to say is worth hearing.” Point taken!
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.