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Strengthen Humanities Courses

Written By Elaine Maimon

It was significant enough for a front-page headline in the Tribune, “Colleges are dropping courses in the humanities” (10/5/2020).

The case in point is Illinois Wesleyan (IWU), a private, not-for-profit university serving about 1600 students in Bloomington, Illinois. IWU’s President is Georgia Nugent, a distinguished humanities scholar, an experienced administrator, and a career-long defender of the liberal arts. I’ve met President Nugent on occasion, but my primary association is through my daughter Gillian, who, as a student at Brown University, took a life-changing classics course with her. The situation at IWU is particularly disturbing because even Georgia Nugent had trouble bucking the trend.

In the article, President Nugent references her faculty experience at Princeton and Brown, where the humanities are not in danger. These universities have endowments in the billions. But it is not tenable in a democracy for the Ivy League and a handful of rich, elite institutions to be the last bastions of humanities education. The study of history, literature, religion, and philosophy are crucial to informed citizenship. The vast majority of U. S. citizens cannot and should not be deprived of their insights.

In 2020, as we face the trifecta of disease, racial reckoning, and economic challenge, immersion in the humanities has never been more important.

In a time when people feel free to use the term “fake news,” it’s essential to ask the key humanities question: “What is truth?”

In a period of racial, social, and economic inequity, we must ask, “What is just and what is unjust?”

In an era when narcissism is a way of life for some, it’s important to ask, “What constitutes a good life?”

In a year when intelligent people seem to have forgotten that science has a history—one that must be known to understand the contemporary world–it’s crucial to ask, “How have thinkers across the ages reconciled science and religion?”

The list of vital questions is endless. But let me turn now to what can be done.

  1. Faculty members must rethink and revitalize the study of the humanities. It’s not enough to expect, as might have been done in the past, that “the right students” would value and select humanities courses. In fact, it’s somewhat elitist to think so. I’ve heard colleagues treat the word, “relevant” with disdain. But according to basic learning theory, it’s important to meet students where they are, to connect what they already know to the new ideas you want them to explore. Students’ heightened awareness of social issues can lead to in depth study of humanities subjects.

  2. Courses in the humanities should reflect diverse voices and points of view. That means rethinking traditional syllabi to be more inclusive.

  3. Faculty should consider the infusion model of humanities inquiry. It can be more effective in some instances to include a topic, systemic racism, for example, as something to be explored across the curriculum, not only in humanities courses, but in science, math, nursing, and engineering.

  4. Humanities scholars should commit to public scholarship—writing and speaking in wide-ranging venues, rather than communicating predominantly to each other. This broader communication might change the national narrative, helping a wide range of citizens to understand the humanities as indispensable to leadership and to responsible citizenship. Personnel committees must recognize public scholarship in hiring, tenure, and promotion.

  5. PhD programs in the humanities should socialize newcomers to the profession, not as independent contractors, but as university citizens.

  6. The suggestions above refer to the responsibilities of humanities professors. But trustees have responsibilities, too. It’s essential for governing boards to support faculty members in the revitalization and rethinking of the humanities. That means investing in faculty development—institutes, workshops, released time—so that what students take for granted at Brown and Princeton can be available at Illinois Wesleyan and, in fact, at every public and private university.

The future of our democracy depends on it.


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