Artwork comprises portions of several paintings by Pilar Pobil displayed throughout the U's Humanities Building.

Why Humanities Matter A conversation with Dianne Harris, a champion for the disciplines.

Ah, the humanities. History, literature, languages, philosophy, and more… these subjects have always occupied a place of central importance at the University of Utah. The earliest curricula at the U focused on liberal arts and classics, and the College of Humanities will celebrate its 50th anniversary as a free-standing college in 2020. Yet today, with increasing emphasis on the disciplines of science, business, and technology, the value of a humanities education has become a debated topic on campuses, in workplaces, and on the political scene.

According to a 2016 analysis from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences published in Inside Higher Ed, the number of humanities undergrad majors has been on a slow decline, hitting an all-time low in 2014. Meanwhile, and probably not coincidentally, employers across the country express concern that newer hires often lack the very skills learned through humanities courses, such as critical thinking, contextual understanding, and the ability to write well. Then there’s the annual hold-your-breath ritual around the question of federal public funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which divvies out funds to the 56 state humanities councils across the country, dependent on its largess to produce education programs for college faculty and public programs that enrich personal and civic life.

These trends and ongoing discussions are paramount to those who champion the humanities, including Dianne Harris, a history professor and former dean of the U’s College of Humanities. Harris recently left the U after serving two years as dean to take an impressive position as senior program officer in higher education and scholarship in the humanities with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York City, which is committed to the humanities, the arts, and higher education.

And while she has enjoyed serving as dean and calls Salt Lake City “one of the most welcoming and beautiful cities on earth,” she acknowledges that joining the Mellon Foundation is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support the humanities in higher education at a time when doing so feels especially urgent. “It provides an opportunity to have a positive impact on the humanities at an unparalleled scale,” she says. Harris began in her new role November 1. But before she left the U, we asked her to share why she believes the humanities matter.

Q: YOU RECENTLY WROTE IN AN OP-ED, “WE NEED THE HUMANITIES NOW MORE THAN EVER.” WHY IS THAT?

Dianne Harris: We are living in profoundly complex times that demand mastery of the skills we teach in the humanities to successfully navigate many key aspects of daily life. The future of our democracy depends on a citizenry that deeply understands its past; that communicates clearly and effectively; that is able to read texts with care and discernment so that fact can be sorted from fiction; that understands ethics and the underpinnings of logic and what is at stake in the leading of an ethical life; that understands how to frame a clear and compelling argument based in rigorously produced research; that embraces the rich mosaic of difference in all its forms and understands that our differences are what make us great; that is multilingual and values diverse modes of communication.

We need to strive for a population that is as widely educated as possible in the critical realms of knowledge that are not simply aimed at problem-solving, but that instead permit our citizens to understand how to frame the most pressing problems that exist now, and to forecast what those will be in the future. That requires creative thinking, not just problem-solving capabilities. If we don’t ensure such an educated citizenry, one that is steeped in a humanities education, our future looks far less bright, and our democracy will be increasingly destabilized.

In the wake of national trauma, we look to the poets and writers, to artists, historians, musicians, and philosophers… to help us ease the pain.”

Q: WHAT ABOUT THE CONCERNS SOME STUDENTS AND PARENTS HAVE ABOUT THE EARNING POTENTIAL OR JOB PROSPECTS OF STUDENTS WHO STUDY HUMANITIES?

Harris: All the available data that have been collected over the past decade by reputable sources such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (see their Humanities Indicators project) show us that humanities degree holders do every bit as well financially over the span of their working lives as do those who hold degrees in business, education, and in many of the sciences. But just as important, we also know from that data that humanities degree holders have among the highest rates of lifelong job satisfaction and fulfillment because they are pursuing meaningful work and enriching their lives—and the lives of others—by using the skills they acquired through their humanities majors.

It might be going too far to say that studying the humanities makes you happier over the long haul of life, but I do think the humanities give us the tools to seek out enriching and deeply rewarding resources that move us towards fulfilled lives of meaning and purpose. There is no question that STEM education is tremendously important as well. But in the absence of a strong background in the humanities, STEM education alone will leave our society impoverished and ill-prepared for the rapidly changing world ahead. Far from being degrees to nowhere, humanities degrees—as all the data show us—are degrees to everywhere.

Q: WHAT WAS YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF FIRST REALIZING THE VALUE OF THE HUMANITIES IN YOUR OWN LIFE?

Harris: Like many, I was fortunate to have parents who read to me when I was very young, and who frequently took me to the local public library when I was a child. We also read in school, of course, but I particularly remember the ways reading fiction became a mainstay of everyday life in the summer. Instead of summer camp, we would head to the library every week and check out books to keep us busy. We lived in a place where it was too hot to play outdoors during much of the day in the summer, so indoor reading kept us occupied and out of trouble for hours at a time. At first, reading was simple entertainment, but books quickly became an entry point into entirely unknown worlds of adventure, mystery, fantasy, history, and more.

I surely couldn’t have articulated it as such at the time, but the Baker Street branch of the public library in Bakersfield, California, changed my life by making reading—and thus the humanities— essential to my world. Also, my father was a geologist, and he had a profound sense of the earth as an historical document that could be read. Every road trip with my father turned into some sort of teachable moment that wove together the history of the earth with the history of the people living on the planet. Those early conversations forever shaped my sense that we are responsible to and for other humans and for the planet.

Q: YOU OFTEN SPEAK ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF HUMANITIES BEYOND THE WALLS OF HIGHER EDUCATION. HOW DO THE HUMANITIES BENEFIT US AS A SOCIETY?

Harris: The humanities are crucial to a healthy democracy, just as they also provide opportunities for fulfilled and gainful employment and an enriched life. But I’m also recurringly struck by the ways in which we consistently and necessarily turn to the humanities and arts for answers, for healing, and for resolution in the most difficult and trying of times.

In the wake of national trauma, for example, we look to the poets and writers, to artists, historians, musicians, and philosophers, for the tools that help us ease the pain of trauma into memory, and to help us process grief and sorrow. We also look to those same humanities and arts disciplines when seeking how best to express joy and to celebrate human achievement. I can’t imagine, nor do I wish to do so, a life without the beauty of artfully crafted texts, images, and sounds.

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4 thoughts on “Why Humanities Matter

  • I studied Metallurgical Engineering and a class in humanities was required. I thought it was a waste of time and not relevant. However, the U printed 2” thick book of required reading was interesting. I did read it all. Over the years I have many times recalled something from the material and I must agree that the class influenced my thinking in a positive way. During one of my many moves, I tossed that text and today, I would like to be able to re-read some of that material. The way our society today is increasingly divided I think the premise of knowing the past does influence how we behave today. So from an old grad, I highly recommend the topic be included in the required classes. BS 68

  • Harris makes a convincing rational argument, which is effective to those that believe as she does. However, she does not make a persuasive argument.

  • The persuasive argument that LM Jennings feels is missing here might be more of an indicator of how in late era American capitalism, there is only one civilizing force: the market. Even higher education is now driven by the market, as is religion, and government, the other anchors to what we traditionally viewed as “the town square.” Unless something can be measured as valuable by the market, or has a quantifiable (read: monetary) value, then the warrants aren’t there for what he refers to as “a persuasive argument” for the humanities in education and everyday life. We orient ourselves exclusively to the marketplace at our peril. I think that is what Ms. Harris is trying to say.

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