Thursday, February 26, 2009

Justifying the Humanities

The New York Times has an article about how the current economic crisis is causing problems in higher education, particularly for the humanities. I've been wondering about this. I have a degree in philosophy from an elite liberal arts college, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about the economic value of a degree in the humanities.

A traditional justification of the humanities is that it enlightens students, provides them with greater insight into the human condition, and thereby inspires them to be better people. I agree with this somewhat, but I also think it's usually overstated and overblown as a justification for the higher expense of a liberal arts degree. I've known great people who had technical degrees (like my Dad) and flaky idiots from elite liberal colleges.

My problems with the humanities have little to do with the humanities themselves, and just about everything to do with how they are taught. I loved reading Keats and Joyce. But when I graduated, I was emotionally burned out, and basically incapable of looking for a job.

I'm going to concentrate on humanities as they are taught at dedicated liberals arts colleges, because I went to one (Swarthmore). I also attended film school as a grad student at the University of Southern California, although I don't have a degree.

For me, the difference between a liberal arts college and a more technically-focused school like film school is simple:

Swarthmore taught me how to think. But USC taught me how to be competent.

Each of those is important. But without the other, each also has severe limitations. For me, Swarthmore was ridiculously unbalanced - there was no effort to teach me how to be competent. I was one of the most politically active people on a very politically active campus: I ran Amnesty International while I was there, and had two internships in Washington. But I had a grand total of one conversation about my activism with a professor while I was there, and that was about a parking ticket.

USC, on the other hand, had both elements of a technical school and a liberal arts college; we were required to take classes in screenwriting and critical studies as well as editing and cinematography. In film school, even the technical skills have a humanist purpose; the best lighting in the world is useless unless it helps tell the story.

Part of the problem with the liberal arts is that professors have absolutely no incentive to help students learn anything other than the subject matters that they teach, and they have very little incentive to change that. And they have tenure, so they have very little reason to change.

Part of my problem is that I got lost asking the "big questions." I kept looking for the "meaning of life," completely ignoring the fact that I had to actually figure out how to live my life before I could ask questions about meaning. In retrospect, I took a class in Plato that was not the best use of my time; I probably would have benefited from taking a class in accounting instead. Or Photoshop, although I'm not sure Photoshop had been invented then.

There are many ways that liberal arts colleges can adapt to the 21st century that would enhance their ability to educate their students without corrupting their mission. There are now a fair number of technologies that require the manipulation of information, which means thinking. Learning how to set up formulas in Excel also teaches math. Working with Photoshop or Illustrator or even PowerPoint is a way of learning about how the visual presentation of information works.

Most of my education consisted of reading books, which means, in the most basic sense, starting at black lines on a white page. Text is an extremely precise method for transferring information. I'm using it right now. But it can also be extremely inefficient. There's a reason a picture is worth a thousand words. Consider a copy of Hamlet in book form. If it were converted to a text format on a computer, like Microsoft Word, it might be a few megabytes in size. Now consider Hamlet as a movie. It's probably on a DVD, and several gigabytes in size. The movie is literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times larger than the text file. Measured digitally, there is literally hundreds of times more information in the movie.

Now consider the process of physically engaging the material. When a student reads Hamlet in book form, there are two minds at work: the student's, and Shakespeare's. But when a student watches a movie (or a play, as Shakespeare intended), there are many, possibly hundreds, of minds at work: all the actors, the director, all the craftspeople.

One great adaptation that would be most helpful would be for liberal arts colleges to end their love affair with books. End the tyranny of text. I love books. I have many books. I read books constantly. I read newspapers and magazines constantly; at one point in my life I had 26 periodical subscriptions. At one point I had something like 4,000 books. I had to sell them, and, honestly, I don't miss having that many.

In the most basic sense, liberal arts colleges are in the business of processing, storing, and transferring information. For many years, those were difficult to do. That's one reason colleges and universities all have large libraries.

But processing, storing, and transferring information are all being radically transformed, and organizations that do not adapt to the new realities are in danger.

Just ask anyone in the newspaper business.

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