There is an economic case for redefining liberal arts education | Mint

There is an economic case for redefining liberal arts education

 Many in the humanities have rejected notions of openness and free inquiry crucial to the university.
Many in the humanities have rejected notions of openness and free inquiry crucial to the university.

Summary

  • Critical thinking and the pursuit of liberal inquiry, as fostered by the humanities and social sciences among students, are important for the economy to prosper. Amid the STEM rush, we tend to forget this.

The humanities and social sciences are failing. Their popularity in the US has been waning in recent years, as many students enter science, technology, engineering and math fields to seek skills directly applicable to their careers, but the last few months have exposed a deeper weakness: The humanities and social sciences are no longer training students to be critical thinkers.

This failure creates serious challenges for our culture and democracy, leaving students less capable of managing a changing economy.

In the last decade, humanities enrolment has fallen 17%, as surveys show that more Americans now question the value of a college education. In 2015, 57% had a lot of confidence in the US higher education system, and now only 36% do. There is less desire among taxpayers to finance the humanities. West Virginia University is making drastic cuts to some of its humanities departments. North Carolina will no longer fund distinguished professorships at public universities in non-STEM fields.

It is not surprising that many students are flocking to STEM classes. The primary reason, if you ask students, is that they want to major in subjects that can get them good jobs. Reading great books, learning history and debating philosophy do not appear relevant to this goal. Perhaps students feel this way because the arts are not doing what traditionally made them valuable: teaching people how to think critically.

Critical thinking has never been more important. A changing economy offers no guarantees. Just a few years ago, learning to code seemed to offer stability. Now AI can write code. But the ability to think analytically, reason well and communicate clearly with a wide range of people will remain invaluable.

This is not the first time the economy has been rapidly transformed. Modern liberalism can be credited for the rise in wealth and living standards that came from the last major transition, from agriculture to industry. It is no coincidence, economic historian Deirdre McCloskey argues, that 18th century Europe was the centre of liberal thought and the birthplace of industrialization. What made this place and time exceptional, she argues, was a pervasive belief in the individual and the ability of anyone to become their best self.

These ideas may have come from academia, but they radiated through society. They helped bring about universal education and an atmosphere where ideas could be freely debated. This culture has economic value, too. It enables discovery of new things and building on the last thing.

Europe’s liberal outlook and the intellectual openness promoted by its universities helped create the conditions for exponential growth in wealth and living standards. Dogma drags down curiosity, innovation and growth.

Lately, as Clive Crook noted, many in the humanities have rejected notions of openness and free inquiry crucial to the university. Instead of teaching liberal principles, they emphasize a hierarchy of oppression and define people based on immutable characteristics. Such a reductive and ahistorical view of the world increases scepticism of the humanities.

The events of 7 October and its aftermath further exposed the intellectual inadequacy of the oppressor/victim approach. Reasonable people can disagree on many aspects of this long and complex conflict. Yet, in the humanities, too many professors have enabled a cartoonish version of history. Some of the most egregious ‘open letters’ about the Israel-Hamas war, for example, have come from professors in humanities and social sciences. The more balanced letters tend to be signed by professors in STEM, business and economics.

US universities have always been different than their overseas counterparts: Rather than study just one subject, such as law or philosophy, many US students receive a four-year undergraduate liberal arts education, including philosophy, history and literature, in addition to sciences. Still, it is not too much of a stretch to say that, in the 20th century, America’s universities played a similar role to Europe’s in the 18th century.

But here in the 21st—as the economy undergoes a transformation as radical as that of 200 years ago—US universities seem to have lost their way.

Educating people in the spirit of liberal principles is more important than ever. If you have a simplistic or reductive view of the world, AI will outthink you. But if you can reason, manage ambiguity and adapt to novel situations and new information, you can use AI to help you navigate a changing economy. That’s not the only reason US universities should re-establish the spirit of openness and free inquiry. But it’s a compelling one. ©bloomberg

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