COMMENTARY: When did education become about narrowing horizons?

It’s 2017, just another year of experts sounding the death knell of the Humanities. By my reckoning, they’ve been dying longer than most first-year college students have been alive. Pundits tell us the cost of higher education is so high and the return on investment of an English, philosophy, history, language, or classics degree is so iffy that students should choose tech or business fields. The Humanities are dismissed as “elitist.”

Even our governor, John Kasich, said in a town hall during his presidential run that young people need to “be getting an education for a job that exists. Don’t get educated in a vacuum,” he continued, “Make sure you know what you want to do, and look for an education that can lead you to a real job.” Other governors, in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Florida are mulling over policies that would penalize students majoring in Humanities disciplines.

As I prepare for my 24th year of teaching American literature at Wright State University, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, I find myself asking — when did the job of higher education become telling young Americans to narrow their horizons, their hopes, their visions of themselves as agents in the world, down to the smallest of pinpricks on the fabric of possibility: as someone who performs a specialized function for money?

Providing access to education and opportunity is the mission of all American public institutions of higher education. Far from being elitist, the Humanities are central to that very democratic mission. No privileged educational, economic, or social background is required for success in any of our fields — just energy and effort, an open mind, and curiosity about one’s fellow humans. No expensive equipment is needed. This helps put degree attainment well within reach of first-generation, minority, working class, and immigrant students whose means may be limited and prepares them for as yet unimaginable future economic, social, and cultural conditions.

Our alumni already are hard at work — as librarians, community organizers, legislators, small business owners, corporate executives, lawyers, development officers, non-profit leaders, craft brewers, military officers, ministers, journalists and educators. These highly productive citizens and taxpayers were positioned to seize career opportunities because they had earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a Humanities field, not in spite of it.

Humanities education irrelevant to the current economy? The skills we teach are the fulcrum, and the degree is the lever that can be used to move the world.

Consider Wilbur and Orville Wright. They did not have “an education for a job that existed.” To be perfectly honest, they didn’t have university educations, either; but the turn-of-the-century high school education was the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree today. I’ve seen their report cards, which used to be displayed at Wright State’s Dunbar Library. The typical public school curriculum of their era was a Humanities education: heavy on reading, writing, reciting, history, and mathematics.

The Wright Brothers’ world-changing innovation was in large part the result of their ability to read and research, think clearly, articulate a problem and solve it, communicate with like-minded individuals around the world, and build and maintain relationships with other members of the turn-of-the-century creative class. These are the skills we teach in the Humanities disciplines, and they are more necessary and relevant now than ever.

Carol S. Loranger is Chair, Department of English Language and Literatures at Wright State University.

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