The Necessity of the Humanities for Americans’ Collective Flourishing

 

“Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses and de-emphasize the humanities.[1]” The balance between promoting a narrow STEM education versus a well-rounded liberal arts education is an subject of contestation involving Americans of all educational, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds. On one side, language of measurement and progress champions STEM disciplines: college rankings vie for Americans’ attention by rating institutions of higher education on quantifiable measures such as student loan debt, earnings after graduation, and other metrics of income security that are best achieved with an undergraduate STEM degree. Policies direct support to technical training, which equals survival in a society defined by technology and shaped by global competition. According to the National Conference of State Legislature, at least 15 states offer some type of premium for certain high-demand STEM degrees. States, frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt, and a lack of skilled workers in science and technology, have begun rewarding colleges for “churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.[2]” Given the belief that one’s education and training should align with the needs of the job market, policy-makers along the political spectrum have portrayed the humanities and liberal arts education as irrelevant and expendable luxuries.

However, every exaltation of STEM that ignores the value of the humanities is met with arguments warning Americans of their narrow obsession with STEM education. Supporters of a broader liberal arts education point out that the very “progress” that STEM supporters pursue reveals the importance of the humanities. The humanities foster creativity and empathy, which are necessities for individuals’ competitiveness in a capitalistic society, and for their capacity to contribute to society as a whole. Those who value the liberal arts argue that a combination of skills drawn from both the humanities and STEM is necessary in designing and delivering holistic solutions for complex world issues.

Interestingly, supporters of a narrow STEM education and supporters of a liberal arts education both reference the value of education in light of its usefulness for an individual’s contribution in a capitalistic society. A well-rounded education undeniably develops individuals’ intellectual capabilities and empowers them with job opportunities and social mobility, but neither side references America’s original intent in founding institutions of education: to require Americans to frequently recur to foundational principles so that they can best guard the unalienable rights of everyone in a democratic society. When Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott rhetorically asks, “is it really a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?[3]” he overlooks the foundational purpose of American education: to help Americans thrive as interdependent members of society.

Scott’s overlooking, which reflects that of many Americans, can be attributed to the disintegration of civic education during the post-Civil War evolution of American political thought. A crucial ideological shift occurred at the end of the Civil War, from which the Union emerged as the cruel victor over the South and proved that ultimately, mass, force, and accident trumped human excellence, character, and persuasion in determining success. The Civil War fundamentally changed America’s character through a newfound faith in and ambition to understand massive forces; before 1865, American institutions depended ideologically upon using reason and choice to combat accident and force, but the Civil War proved that no progress of the human mind could contribute a sufficient command over cruel circumstances, such as those evident in the war. Shifts in American political thought — shifts that subjected Americans to the accident and force that Americans once strived to be free from — influenced Americans’ conception of human rights, obsession with math and science, pastlessness, and fear of reflection.

Before the Civil War, political thinkers observed that nature revealed truths about Americans’ interdependence, but after 1865, thinkers observed truths about nature that undermined Americans’ interdependence. Marx observed that nature was characterized by a ceaseless struggle between unalterable forces of violence and disorder, and that the antagonism between and among classes was dictated by cold calculation and massive, impersonal forces that individuals could neither understand nor control. Americans realized that their rational choice was powerless over physical and historical forces that determined their destiny, but that they could choose to leverage math and science to progress along the trajectory of existing forces.

Through the mathematical and scientific study of natural forces, social darwinism changed the terms on which Americans derived individual rights and thus the terms on which Americans related to other Americans. Darwin, like Marx, concluded that because all of nature engaged in a lifelong struggle for survival, nature preached that it is natural, or right by nature, for everyone to be concerned primarily with their self-preservation. Survival was deemed the highest moral pursuit, and thus, every individual derived his or her rights from his or her fundamental right to survival. This newly defined moral pursuit made Americans vulnerable to the lure of sudden wealth, because self-interested economic gain was now amoral and within the boundaries of one’s individual rights. As the nation’s new ideologies betrayed its foundational democratic ideals, the greed, disunity, and private ambition that the Antifederalists prophesied became lasting concerns.

Additionally, social darwinism’s mantra of “survival of the fittest” applied its observations of evolution in nature to evolution in American society as well, convincing Americans that even though they could not change nature’s forces, these forces were propelling society into a future that was undeniably better than the past. The language of and pressure to progress inherently abandoned a faith in the past and silenced the need for reflection. The intellectual progress that capacitated these shifts in American political thinking were self-perpetuating; if Americans believed that they were continually deepening their knowledge of nature through math and science, then the farther they moved away from foundational democratic ideals, the closer they believed they were to “real” natural truths.

Gilman’s theory that great progress could only be achieved by competition, quantification and optimization encouraged a veneration of machines and mechanics that altered the conception of valuable work. Before the Civil War, work consisted of the intellectual activity instrumental to the progress of individuals and of society. After 1865, valuable work consisted of a labor force undergoing technical training to operate machines and optimize processes to secure America’s competitiveness in a global society subject to economic forces beyond its control.

Furthermore, the national moral malaise following the Civil War further deterred Americans from reflecting upon and seeing value in the past. Americans sought normalcy after the traumatic moral contestation of the Civil War, and thus, any belief that permitted them to avoid considering America’s intellectual positioning became very desirable. Social darwinism taught that government did not operate under an obligation to supervise its constituents, and thus Americans apathetically submitted to an impersonal government that threatened democracy This apathetic submission was a direct threat to the democracy that the Antifederalists advocated for, in which the debate over ideologies stemmed from a faith in public persuasion. Again, this pastlessness was self-perpetuating; the stronger the sentiment of pastlessness, the stronger the striving for progress, which was believed to expedite Americans’ movement away from the moral mess of the Civil War.

Because democracy was no longer a matter of individual choice but was dependent on external, unalterable forces, there was no purpose to promoting disciplines that educated individuals to become better citizens. Shifts in American political thinking, which influenced and were influenced by the worship of measurement and calculation, immediate capitalistic gain for survival, and “progress,” prompted an intellectual change in educational priorities that venerated certain disciplines and pedagogies and devalued others.

The emphasis on survival in an economy of rising mechanical industries stressed the purpose of learning specific skills that directly translated to maximum capitalistic gain for the individual and for society. STEM education and technical training were promoted because advancements in math and science advanced society’s understanding of the forces they were subject to. In addition, Americans applied their obsessive adherence to objective measures to evaluating the productivity of education. Instead of encouraging individuals to ask questions and develop as the independent thinkers that Thoreau believed could combat unjust governance and that Tocqueville believed could combat the tyranny of the majority, new pedagogy centered around superficial metrics of learning outcomes that prioritized measurable growth, which was more easily evaluated in STEM fields. The focus on quantification plagued test-driven, anemic educational practices for all fields, forcing fascinating epiphanies of human life to become bland classroom exercises in information accumulation and regurgitation.

The promotion of STEM content and pedagogy conducive for STEM content, coupled with sentiments of pastlessness and the assumed value of “progress,” further devalued the “irrelevant” humanities education. Language of pastlessness and progress promoted a disdain of the past and discouraged reflection; under social darwinism, there was no need to reflect upon forces that one could not control, especially because there was nothing positive to glean from the past and because forces progressed regardless of one’s reflection or action. Thus, not only were the humanities less useful than STEM in preparing individuals for a capitalistic society, but they were also unable to help Americans improve themselves and improve society through reason and choice. In addition, because nature now provided a simple answer for how Americans should relate to each other, tools that powerful for explaining social forces and for understanding Americans’ relationships with each other became obsolete.

Americans in a post Civil War era were immersed in a political thinking dictated by measurement and progress instead of the continued self-scrutiny that America was founded upon. Consequently, Americans lost an awareness of three previously recognized democratic truths: that Americans’ interior lives are the source of liberation and flourishing, that Americans need to be recognized by other Americans, and that democratic freedom requires a governing body that protects Americans’ rights on a large scale. The decline in democratic ideals was perpetuated by the decline in disciplines that fostered an introspection necessary for its restoration. However, the neglected humanities still have the potential to restore an understanding and collective practice of true democracy, because they hone American’s understanding of themselves, of others, and of the relationships between themselves and others.

The humanities hone an individual’s ability to engage responsibly in a polity where everyone recognizes the importance of protecting everyone else’s rights. A healthy democracy relies on citizens who can resist apathetic deferral to majority authority, hold politicians accountable, and critique systems that discourage Americans from protecting democracy. By equipping individuals to critically gather information, understand their surroundings, and reason about their choices, the humanities train Americans to be thoughtful and involved citizens. The humanities also help Americans engage in their incorrigible search for the meaning of being an American. “Self-evident” truths — that Americans are equally dependent on the interior lives of others, that the satisfaction of each American’s inner life depends on living in free society with others, and that equality relies on interdependence — are only evident through reflection fostered by studying the humanities.

The humanities also combat the self-promoting attitudes of social darwinism by teaching that just as individuals can discover their own intrinsic worth and need to be recognized for their full rights as human beings, they can also recognize the same worth and needs of every other member of society. After individuals recognize the intrinsic value in others, the humanities also help individuals foster an empathy necessary for promoting democratic ideals that protect all members of a diverse polity. For example, reading across languages and cultures fosters an understanding of the vast range of perspectives in society, and participating in the arts fosters the capacity to imagine the challenges that others face. These skills are especially imperative to fostering a diversity that America has always championed ideologically but struggled to uphold in praxis.

Social darwinism preaches that one’s pursuit of capitalistic gain is sufficient for one’s own flourishing, and that one does not need to consider the flourishing of society as a whole. However, democratic ideals teach that the ability to live together with others requires the ability to see oneself linked with others whom one has never directly known. For example, the study of American history reveals the need for nations to institute policies that protect the rights of all members of society, whose happiness is instrumental to the happiness of all other members. As Americans realize the wealth of wisdom that the past holds, American’s study of humanities not only enlivens their understanding of interdependence, but also catalyzes a positive cycle of combating the pastlessness and alienation that social darwinism perpetuated.

In neglecting the purpose of education for fostering democracy, present day education debates reflect the language and values of a post Civil War era when a country, born around a conversation and contestation of minds, lost its ability to reflect upon the dangerous evolution away from its foundational ideologies. The social darwinism that arose after the Civil War starkly altered the inner life of Americans, who struggled and failed to maintain foundational democratic ideals. Social darwinism shaped the politics that succeeded the Civil War: whereas Winthropian ideals preached that the study of nature brought Americans closer to natural truth of their interdependence, the new “natural truth” that emerged after 1865 taught that all humans were alone in the self-interested, competitive struggle for life. Social darwinism also promoted pastlessness and “progress,” which caused Americans to discard the very intellectual pursuits that defined them as a self-scrutinizing polity and necessitated their intellectual progress as a nation. Shifts in American political thought also contributed to an undermining of the humanities that continues today. However, studying the humanities is instrumental to restoring democracy, because it cultivates Americans’ abilities to recognize others’ unalienable rights and to live in a way that honors those rights. Amidst today’s STEM versus liberal arts debate, it is critical to not only remember what the humanities contribute to a capitalistic society, but the potential of the humanities to help Americans flourish in a democratic society. As Americans strive to create a more adaptable and innovative workforce, the humanities are a source of national memory and civic vigor, cross-cultural empathy and communication, individual and collective fulfillment, and most importantly, the protectors of ideals that make Americans who they are.

 

[1] Zakaria, F. (2015, March 26). Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. Retrieved May 5, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-stem-wont-make-us-successful/2015/03/26/5f4604f2-d2a5-11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.html

[2] Cohen, P. (2016, February 21). A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding. Retrieved May 4, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/business/a-rising-call-to-promote-stem-education-and-cut-liberal-arts-funding.html?_r=0

[3] Jaschik, S. (2011, October 12). Florida GOP vs. Social Science. Retrieved May 10, 2016, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/10/12/florida_governor_challenges_idea_of_non_stem_degrees

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The Necessity of the Humanities for Americans’ Collective Flourishing

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