When I was a freshman, I heard a School of Management student call Harpur College the Harpur School of Arts and Crafts. I forgave him quickly because he thought “leadership” was a real field of study and therefore obviously couldn’t be held to a more clever standard.
Binghamton University is a school of petty and good-natured rivalries. School vs. school, building vs. building, community vs. community, club vs. club. We even like to imagine Cornell shaking its fist at us from atop piles of Ivy League tuition money.
This friendly ribbing becomes problematic when people start seriously suggesting that some groups — for example, majors — are actually useless and shouldn’t be included in a university. More specifically, I’ve been stewing on a Thought Catalog article by Matt Saccaro which argued that universities should get rid of non-STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields as majors.
I appreciate that STEM majors are heavily responsible for cutting edge technological advancements. I’ll happily credit my Samsung Galaxy SIII to science. As a political science major, I could better discuss the labor rights involved in building my phone than explain why its camera takes better pictures than my actual camera does.
And that is the difference: discussion. Humanities classrooms give ideas space to breathe, circulate and evolve. Universities are supposed to be a forum for the exchange of ideas. Though this has been made easier by the rise of the Internet, anyone who has sent an email knows that communicating face-to-face allows for expression and clarity unachievable through text. Even after learning how to write clearly and concisely — another benefit of the humanities — talking is still a fundamental mode of communication.
Saccaro suggests that buying books on history and finding an Internet forum would be as useful and effective as a college liberal arts course. Aside from the obvious issues with civility on an Internet forum, there is also the issue of having a qualified moderator.
In classroom discussions the instructor keeps the conversation on track (and civil) and serves to offer an experienced and professional opinion when necessary. He or she is not just an instructor, but also an authority. Of course this authority should be questioned, and classroom discussion serves as a platform for this conversation as well.
A particularly cynical reader might ask, “What is there to discuss? What can the humanities contribute to global knowledge?”
If we understood ourselves and others as well as we thought we did, we wouldn’t have half as many interpersonal issues as we do. The sciences are on the cutting edge of knowledge, but the humanities keep the knife from slipping. Promoting only the sciences is akin to careening along a mountain ridge while your foot slips on and off the brake. As a popular Internet comic once argued: The sciences can help you clone a dinosaur, but the humanities tell you why this might be a bad idea.
An education in the humanities is one in thinking. Everyone can (in theory) think, but the humanities teach you how to do it better, differently and more thoroughly. The humanities teach you how to look at an idea from different vantage points and how to peel it apart. You shouldn’t leave a humanities education thinking the same ideas or through the same processes as you did when you walked in.
In the end, while the sciences seek to understand the outside world, the humanities seek to understand the inner world. A major is more than a chosen expertise. It’s a perspective from which to study ourselves. Juxtaposed against the benefits the sciences bring to society as a whole, and this may seem selfish, but society is nothing if not individuals trying to come to terms with themselves and others. When you choose to study English, you’re also choosing a way of thinking and a perspective from which to examine the human condition.
It’s easy to forget that the humanities are partners with the sciences. An educational model without the humanities would be just as lopsided without the sciences; something a university, as a pillar of knowledge on the face of civilization, cannot afford.