As someone who believes a truly great university educates its students on how to make a good living and a good life, I’ve followed with some concern the pressure placed on universities to only educate students for their careers. This is most often felt in the humanities and is something I spoke about at the Reinvention Center’s national conference last year.
Over the past two decades in the United States, the number of students majoring in the humanities has declined by roughly 50 percent. This is often because students and their families seek out majors they see as immediately marketable. This is a trend that only gains strength during challenging economic times.
It’s also amplified by the fact that policymakers and business leaders often call upon us to educate more graduates in specific fields like engineering, pharmacy and medicine. We’re doing that, because these graduates are central to the economy. But graduates from the humanities and liberal arts are also central to our economy, which is a message that isn’t as often heard.
And what’s more, we need our engineers, pharmacists and doctors to also have a solid grounding in the humanities if we are to expect them to be truly successful in their lives.
What sets a university apart from other, more specialized institutions of higher learning is that we offer students a comprehensive education. Our modern universities trace their development back to the middle ages and the study of the trivium—grammar, rhetoric and logic—the evolution of which remains core to a robust undergraduate education and one that is central to the liberal arts.
As a university, we don’t just educate students on how to do a job. We also give them the broad base of knowledge and experiences they’ll need to understand the world they’re living and working in.
Determining how best to give our students the opportunity to receive a broad-based education is a focus of our renewal of KU’s core curriculum. The humanities must be a central element of that curriculum, both in terms of the courses offered and the experiences such as study abroad that students are encouraged to take part in.
Many leaders in government and industry share our views on the value of an education infused with the humanities. For example, John Hofmeister, former president of Shell, told the AAU presidents last October that there cannot be an adequate solution to the world's great problems, whether energy or poverty or war, without consideration of the cultural, religious, and environmental issues relevant to these problems.
As a public institution, we must always be aware of the needs of our students and the state that we serve. But we also have a duty to engage in an active conversation on the value of all of the disciplines we offer and the importance to our economy and world of educating graduates who have the broad base of knowledge they’ll need to become leaders.