Finding a Purpose in the Humanities by Nicholas Agar

With policymakers intending to favor “out-of-the-box” technical majors, it is becoming increasingly difficult for liberal arts departments to attract students. But these fields of study are more important than ever, and with a few modest reforms, they should be easy to sell for today’s “motivated” young people.

ADELAIDE – Times are tough for the humanities. Too many liberal arts subjects have come to be seen as out of date and irrelevant. Who can afford to invest in a four-year course focused on the wisdom of the Mayan civilization or the nuances of Japanese poetry? To adapt Churchill’s famous 1939 aphorism on Understanding Russia, students today face a pandemic, shrouded in a technological revolution, within a climate crisis.

As a proud scholar in the humanities, I believe that the knowledge that my colleagues and I impart are essential in preparing students for future uncertainties. As the past five years have shown, the predictions of our most knowledgeable technical experts can easily go wrong. The humanities, with an emphasis on the infinite variety of human experience, offer the best insurance against overconfident forecasters.

But in making the practical case for the humanities – especially when seeking political support – it is not enough to repeat what we know to be true. In Australia, an unfriendly government has taken on the humanities, dramatically increasing the cost students pay to study them. The explicit goal is to send a signal to the market that student time is best spent mastering ‘out of the box’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. According to then Education Minister Dan Tehan – a not-so-proud humanities graduate – the policy would prevent students from the kind of education that “almost cost me the chance to get a job.”

You know there is a problem when the Minister of Education starts talking about your classes the same way public health officials talk about smoking; the idea is to increase the cost of history studies to break students from their unhealthy habit in the humanities.

How could the humanities be repackaged to appear fresher and more “out-of-the-box” (even for those who reject the idea that the purpose of universities is to produce productive white-collar workers)? One idea is to abolish the traditional term paper in favor of more effective modes of persuasion and communication.

Since the 1990s, I have noticed a shift in student attitudes towards the traditional assessment tasks required by humanities courses and majors. This perhaps reflects the common observation that post-millennials are more “goal-driven” than previous generations, as demonstrated by students who have demonstrated for tougher gun control laws. in the United States and for tougher climate policies around the world.

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Post-millennials don’t wait for permission from their elders to speak. As CNN’s Ronald Brownstein puts it, this is a generation that “has marinated in a world of ubiquitous communication and ubiquitous social media.” Its members do not absorb information and express their opinions in the same way as previous generations. And these differences go far beyond simple stylistic details or grammar issues.

The implication for the disciplines of the humanities is that they must adopt new ways of transmitting their benefits to post-millennials. In the information age, a goal-driven generation will be hungry for tools of persuasion, assets that the humanities are well equipped to provide.

Therefore, the alternative assessment model I chose for a course I teach at Carnegie Mellon University is the standard 700-1000 word opinion commentary – like the one you are reading now. This template is ideal for student writing in the digital age. Someone who seeks to persuade a large readership cannot start with cumbersome formulations such as, “In this essay, I will argue that …” Nor can one get away with long-winded, jargon-laden prose. The message should be intellectually serious, but also tailored to what really appeals to readers. To succeed, you have to think carefully about your argument. (Some results of this educational experience can be found on a Medium page I created.)

By mastering this mode of communication, post-millennial students would have a lot to offer the world. They might not be world-class experts or Nobel Laureates (at least not yet), but they can learn to take advantage of other benefits. In 2004, David Shipley, then Op-Ed editor of The New York Times, offered helpful advice on the types of comments he was looking for his section. In response to the question “Does it help to be famous?” He replied, “Not really. In fact, the acceptance bar is a bit higher for people who can afford to get their point across in other ways.

A young writer’s commentary will have done its job if it communicates its author’s experience truthfully and effectively. Shipley encourages opinion writers to focus on the voice. According to a Harvard Kennedy School alphabet book, “the range of voices used in columns can be wide: contemplative, conversational, descriptive, experienced, informative, informed, introspective, observant, plaintive, reporting, self-effacing, sophisticated, humorous, among many many other possibilities.

This strain taps into the expressive versatility characteristic of post-millennials. And we need to hear them, because their perspective is fundamentally different from that of the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who are currently in leadership positions in politics and business. Who benefits from the fact that the only audible voices on climate change belong to those who will be long gone before its worst potentials manifest?

Tackling issues like climate change or ‘non-aligned’ artificial intelligence will require not only technological breakthroughs, but political innovations as well. This will require debates on immeasurable values ​​and questions of intergenerational justice. Young people, who have the greatest interest in the outcome of these debates, must be equipped to fully engage in them.

In a 2013 cover story, TimeMagazine described millennials rather less generously as the “Me Me Me Generation,” channeling the common assumption that young people growing up in the age of social media spend far too much time focusing on themselves and refine their personal brands. But these young people are the only ones who can relay what it really is to be a digital native. As we explore ways to regulate the new digital economy, this is the kind of testimony we should be looking for. And we need a well-established, goal-oriented humanities curriculum to produce it.

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