Heralding the humanities


Advocates for the humanities gathered this week in Washington, D.C., to network and to represent the continuing relevance of humanities research, education, and programming. This, in an era when higher education feels pressure to focus more on “workforce skills.”

Michigan State University is a member of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), which held its annual meeting in Washington.

As important as the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills are for graduates in today’s workplace, there is also an important place for the humanities. Critical thinking skills are no less important than empirical skills, and one could argue that cultural knowledge is increasingly important to operating successfully in a more diverse, global setting.

The humanities serve the nation in four important ways, according to the NHA:

  • Humanities disciplines teach essential skills and habits including reading, writing, critical thinking, and effective communication that are crucial for ensuring that individuals have the opportunity to learn and become productive members of society.
  • Employers predict that future economic growth will come from cultural knowledge and analytical ability paired with technical knowledge and scientific research. 

  • Humanities disciplines cultivate the deep knowledge of the languages, cultures, and histories of rapidly changing areas of the world that national security, diplomatic, and business communities regularly draw upon to understand the contexts in which they work. 

  • The humanities promote the understanding of our common ideals, enduring civic values, and shared cultural heritage. 

Michigan State’s own curriculum is a product of the blending of practical/technical instruction with elements of a liberal education. In fact, this critical amalgamation has been a hallmark of an MSU education since its founding in 1855. Not content to settle for anything less than a well-rounded education, our students were among the most adamant advocates for the humanities. Thus developed the longstanding land-grant imperative to develop citizen-scholars on behalf of society.

Today our students seeking humanities studies have a wide range of options that include the College of Arts and Letters and the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, which instill innovative thinking and engagement with the greater community. In the words of Elizabeth Simmons, acting dean of the College of Arts and Letters, “To succeed in a challenging future, all Spartans will need the skills and sensibilities nurtured by the arts and humanities.”

The humanities intersect with science today in fascinating, often surprising ways. Natalie Phillips, an MSU assistant professor of English, recently won a fellowship for her work with literary cognition. She employed MRI machines to measure brain flow while subjects read Jane Austen novels, with preliminary results showing activation of brain regions not necessarily associated with reading.

Finally, MSU this week hosted the T-Summit, focusing on developing “T-shaped” graduates who are deep in disciplinary and systems knowledge and broad in connective skills including communication, perspective, critical thinking, and global understanding. The latter, in particular, are skills promoted by cultural and literary studies—by the humanities—and are a necessary part of a complete higher education of the sort offered by the world’s great universities, including MSU.



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