Published on 2015/12/01

The Public Humanities: A New Way of Thinking About Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | The Public Humanities: A New Way of Thinking About Higher Education
To define the value of education and learning solely by the quantifiable outcomes ignores the work being done by humanities educators at institutions and organizations across the US, as well as the ongoing hunger for learning among America’s citizenry.

I am under no illusions that a strategy of serving non-traditional students alone will end the current “crisis of the humanities.” However, I feel that we can change perceptions about that crisis by revealing the hidden value of the humanities.

There are any number of occasions now where politicians—on both sides of the aisle—dismiss the humanities as a waste of student time and money because it is assumed that humanities graduates cannot find work that is as lucrative as those in the STEM fields. What if we were to measure the value of the humanities differently and more expansively than we currently do?

I am convinced that the future of the humanities will be determined by our reception by “the public,” and that to thrive the humanities must be re-imagined as “the public humanities.”

The Goldberg Center hosts a public lecture series titled The Clio Society, our first event of the academic year being just a few weeks ago. My colleague presented on the history of British food, and the ways in which the increased consumption of wheat, sugar and meat led to health challenges that we continue to confront today. I was gratified by the large number of people in attendance, and especially the words of one audience member who said “Thanks for bringing the ‘Land Grant’ system out into the community. Outreach should be an important goal of OSU. Bravo!” Those in attendance, of course, were lifelong learners, who were deeply appreciative of the lecture and eager to learn more about the “industrialization of food.”

Origins, the Goldberg Center’s monthly publication, situates some pressing current event in a wider and deeper historical context. Aside from current geopolitical issues, Origins articles have explored the history of domestic violence, the prison crisis, the politics of the Olympics and the drought in California. Our monthly readership for this free publication numbers in the tens of thousands.

Attendance at Clio Society lectures and readership of Origins signals to me that there is a audience hungering for the insights and wisdom of humanists, a hunger that is overlooked when we define the value of the humanities strictly in terms of the vocational placement of traditional undergraduates. The Clio Society and Origins are part of a larger trend of self-improvement through informal education. The thousands of viewers of TED talks are emblematic of this trend that to me harkens back to the late 19th-century Chautauqua movement. At a time when few people attended institutions of higher education, many middle-class Americans engaged in self-improvement through informal education. The humanities are a central feature of such contemporary informal educational opportunities.

Clio lectures and Origins articles are free services that we happily provide as a statement of and commitment to our land grant mission of disseminating knowledge to the public. If we included these audiences in any measure of the value of the humanities we would no longer talk about a “crisis in the humanities.” I would never want to be forced to charge money for these services to lifelong learners, but fear that if we continue to value academic disciplines by their economic return—to learners, to the institution and to the companies that hire graduates—then we may be forced to do just that. I do not relish the prospect of selling badges or other micro-credentials for those who attend our lectures or read our e-magazine. I do not want those to be the markers of the value of the humanities.

The “crisis of the humanities” will evaporate when we make lifelong learning and service to the public the most important measures of the value of higher education.

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Readers Comments

Simon Gregory 2015/12/01 at 11:01 am

It seems like this impetus to define the value of education by economic return on investment alone is the real crisis within the humanities. Liberal arts have always been the marker of education for education’s sake, and it would be such a shame to lose that.

Rosie Moreno 2015/12/01 at 2:03 pm

I think we’re talking about two different things when we talk about lucrative job prospects and valuable education, and it’s important that we recognize that. A huge part of the goal of postsecondary education is still to foster critical faculties, compassion and self-awareness, and those were never things that could be measured in entry-level salaries. High-paying jobs is definitely a benefit of STEM fields, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the value of the humanities as educational disciplines.

Isabel Steele 2015/12/01 at 3:22 pm

It is also worth mentioning that discussions of the value of different disciplines needs to include some awareness of privilege among learners. Some students may have no choice but to choose a discipline based on earning potential, and that of course in no way denigrates the human value of an arts degree, but it does influence the way we talk about the value of postsecondary education to different demographics.

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