HMM . . . : The Humanities Without the ‘U’


I’ve been thinking in the past few weeks about the possible negative consequences for Canadian society in general of diminishing enrollment in our university humanities programs, and about how these negative consequences could be avoided, or at least minimized.

Although I’ve indicated in some of my earlier ‘UABCs’ posts in this blog (i.e., posts about post-secondary education) that I believe Canadian students generally should now avoid university humanities programs, this is not to say that I’m against the study of literature, history, and so on. My main concern is with the political turmoil that now exists within our universities, including not only in the humanities but also in the social sciences and related professional disciplines, and how students may become caught up in it, and hurt by it. (If you want to know more about my opinions in this regard, you may wish to have a look at my very first post in this blog, “UHUM(e): No Cheers for the Liberal Arts,” or something more recent, “ACH-U(2): A Comment on Adam Gopnik’s Blog Post, “Why Teach English?“”  Money obviously also is an issue for many students today: for those with limited financial resources, who participate in post-secondary education primarily to improve their job opportunities and who can afford to do only one degree, if that, a humanities degree is not currently a good investment. (Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, and there was a relative abundance of jobs for young people, and university tuition was relatively low, it was still generally a good investment.)

Over the past several decades, certain Canadians who studied the humanities in university have made very significant contributions to Canadian culture, including in the arts, broadcasting, publishing, education, law, government, and so on. Many others who studied the humanities in university have helped in more modest ways during this period to enhance Canadian culture–if only through sharing their interest and knowledge with their families, co-workers, and friends. Then, too, there are various personal satisfactions that have become available to Canadians who studied the humanities in university, such as the enjoyment of literature and other creative arts.

Besides these more abstract, ‘loftier’, kinds of contributions to Canadian society, the study of the humanities in our universities also has positively contributed to Canadian society in more practical, sometimes overlooked, ways. A blog post by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “Why the liberal arts matter,” posted on May 24, got me thinking about these other, often overlooked, contributions.

I don’t normally read Zakaria’s blog posts.  One of the 300 or so people and organizations I follow on Twitter (I have no idea which one) had retweeted the link, that appeared in my Twitter feed. The post basically consists of a restatement of a commencement speech Zakaria recently had given at Sarah Lawrence, a liberal arts college in New York City, that offers undergraduate degrees in the humanities that, here in Canada, would normally be earned at a university. (We don’t have the exact equivalent of American liberal arts colleges in this country.) I started reading Zakaria’s post expecting to disagree with him, but I ended up actually agreeing with his main points.

Zakaria asserts that there are three things he most values from his humanities studies in the United States. (He previously had  studied the sciences in India, which I take to be his homeland.) The first two are closely related: having learned to write well and having learned to speak well. (This is quite apart from learning basic English. Zakaria seems to have had a good command of basic English before studying in the U.S.) Indeed, Zakaria learned to write and to speak sufficiently well that he was able to become a professional journalist, including a television journalist for a major network. The third is having learned how to learn, regardless of the content. Here, Zakaria is a little vague, but he seems to be referring basically to independent learning–of the variety in which one might engage to write, for example, a history essay–as opposed to rote learning, more commonly associated with scientific and technical education. (Zakaria interestingly maintains that learning to think, which is often said to be a key value of a humanities education, cannot be separated from learning to write.)

I did find it disturbing that Zakaria completely omitted any reference to the current political unrest in university humanities programs. Zakaria also neglects to mention that humanities degrees have become financially out of reach for many people because of high tuition fees coupled with a decreased probability that humanities degrees will lead directly, or even indirectly, to satisfying, well-paying, jobs. But I found myself willing to forgive Zakaria for these lapses in this otherwise sensitive piece because he seems to have studied the humanities quite some time ago (probably in the late ’70s or ’80s) and appears to have had little or no recent direct contact with university humanities programs–other than giving commencement speeches.

After reading Zakaria’s post, I thought back to some of my early university humanities courses, and these early humanities courses, especially the literature courses, were indeed helpful to me in learning to express myself with words, whether in writing or orally. This was through a combination of the examples of the material I was then reading for my courses; the various challenges related to writing and speaking that were presented to me as coursework; and the helpful suggestions of teachers who evaluated my work. The learning process continues to this day, but at least a good foundation seems to have been laid in those courses.

(Having claimed that I now know how to write with some degree of proficiency, due in large measure to my university training, I’ve opened up my writing–including the writing in this blog–to criticism. I fully admit that the writing in some of the original published versions of some my blog posts has been flawed, but I always go back to edit, and re-edit–unfortunately, I fear, too late for some readers. Even after over two years of blogging, I’m still getting used to the independent blog format, in which I’m able to publish material whenever I wish, without anyone else looking at. Sometimes, I get too excited about sharing my thoughts.)

Just as the cultural knowledge that many Canadians acquired in university humanities programs in recent decades seems to have infused Canadian society as a whole, it seems the more modest, practical, kinds of knowledge that may be acquired in such programs, particularly in the areas of written and oral communication, can be valuable not only to those who studied the humanities in university but also to our society as a whole. I would suggest that there has been an overall decline in clear, engaging, written and oral communication in this country in recent years, paralleling the declining enrollment in university humanities programs during this period. With the increasing decline in Canadian university humanities enrollment, the situation may deteriorate even further. (If you don’t believe me about the current state of communication in this country, I would suggest you pay close attention the next time you’re reading the newspaper or watching television.)

In the next few posts in this blog, I plan to put forward some of my ideas about how various Canadian organizations and groups could pick up the slack, helping our citizens to acquire some of the valuable knowledge and skills that may be acquired in university humanities programs, or indirectly through family members and friends who have acquired such knowledge and skills in university humanities programs.  I’ll also address how individuals could, to some extent, independently acquire such knowledge and skills.

This is assuming, of course,  further developments on the Trinity Western University law school front do not intervene.  As at least most readers of this blog probably are aware, last week, members of the BC Law Society revoted on whether graduates of the proposed TWU law school should be accepted as members of the BC Bar and, this time, the result was ‘no’. It now looks like the issue is heading to Canada’s Supreme Court. (I believe it could be extremely helpful to look at this case within the context of the political turmoil that now exists within our universities in general.)


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