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Finding purpose in the humanities

Dec 11,2021 - Last updated at Dec 11,2021

ADELAIDE — These are tough times for the humanities. Too many liberal arts subjects have come to be seen as fusty and irrelevant. Who can afford to invest in a four-year education focusing on the wisdom of the Mayan civilization or the nuances of Japanese poetry? To adapt Churchill’s famous 1939 aphorism about understanding Russia, students today confront a pandemic, wrapped in a technological revolution, inside a climate crisis.

As a proud humanities scholar, I believe that the knowledge my colleagues and I impart is essential to prepare students for future uncertainties. As the past five years have shown, predictions from even our most informed technical experts can easily go awry. The humanities, with their focus on the infinite variety of human experience, offer the best insurance against overconfident forecasters.

But in making the practical case for the humanities, especially when seeking political support, it is not enough to repeat what we know to be true. In Australia, an unsympathetic government has taken aim at the humanities, significantly increasing the cost students pay to study them. The explicit goal is to send a market signal that students’ time is better spent mastering “job-ready” STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. According to then-minister of education Dan Tehan, a not-so-proud humanities graduate, the policy would save students from the kind of education that “nearly cost me the opportunity of getting a job”.

You know there’s a problem when the minister of education starts talking about your courses the way public-health officials talk about smoking; the idea is to increase the cost of studying history to break students of their unhealthy humanities habit.

How might the humanities be repackaged to appear fresher and more “job-ready” (even for those who reject the idea that the purpose of universities is to churn out productive white-collar workers)? One idea is to abolish the traditional term paper in favor of more effective modes of persuasion and communication.

Since the 1990s, I have noticed a change in students’ attitudes toward the traditional assessment tasks required by humanities courses and majors. Perhaps this reflects the common observation about post-millennials being more “purpose driven” than previous generations, as demonstrated by the students who have demonstrated for stronger gun-control laws in the United States and for stronger climate policies around the world.

Post-millennials are not waiting for their elders’ permission to speak. As Ronald Brownstein of CNN puts it, this is a generation that has “marinated in a world of ubiquitous communication and pervasive social media”. Its members neither absorb information nor express their views in the same ways as earlier generations did. And these differences extend far beyond mere stylistic details or matters of grammar.

The implication for the humanities disciplines is that they need to embrace new ways to impart their benefits to post-millennials. In an information age, a purpose-driven generation will be hungry for the tools of persuasion, assets that the humanities are well equipped to provide.

Hence, the alternative model of assessment I have chosen for a course I am teaching at Carnegie Mellon University is the standard 700-1,000-word opinion commentary, like the one you are reading now. This model is ideal for student writing in the digital age. Someone who is seeking to persuade a large general readership cannot open with ponderous formulations such as, “In this essay, I will argue that…” Nor can one get away with prolix, jargon-laden prose. The message must be intellectually serious, but also attuned to what actually attracts readers. To succeed, one must think carefully about one’s argument. Some results of this educational experiment can be found at a Medium page I have created.

By mastering this mode of communication, post-millennial students would have much to offer the world. They may not be world-class experts or recipients of the Nobel Prize (at least not yet), but they can be taught to leverage other advantages. Back in 2004, David Shipley, then the Op-Ed editor of The New York Times, offered some useful advice about the kinds of commentaries he sought for his section. In response to the question “Does it help to be famous?” He replied, “Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways.”

A young writer’s commentary will have done its job if it communicates the experience of its author truthfully and effectively. Shipley encourages op-ed writers to focus on voice. According to a primer from the Harvard Kennedy School, “the range of voice used in columns can be wide: Contemplative, conversational, descriptive, experienced, informative, informed, introspective, observant, plaintive, reportorial, self-effacing, sophisticated, humorous, among many other possibilities.”

This variety taps into the expressive versatility characteristic of post-millennials. And we need to hear from them, because their outlook is fundamentally different from that of the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who currently occupy leadership positions in politics and business. Who benefits when the only audible voices on climate change belong to those who will be long gone before its worst potentialities become manifest?

Addressing problems like climate change or “unaligned” artificial intelligence will require not just technological breakthroughs but also political innovation. It will require debates over incommensurable values and questions of intergenerational justice. Young people, who have the greatest stake in the outcome of these debates, must be equipped to engage in them fully.

In a 2013 cover story, Time Magazine described millennials rather ungenerously as the “Me Me Me Generation”, channelling the common assumption that young people growing up in the age of social media spend far too much time focusing on themselves and refining their personal brands. But these young people are the only ones who can relay what it is truly like to be a digital native. As we explore ways to regulate the new digital economy, that is the kind of testimony we should be seeking. And we need a well-honed, purpose-driven humanities curriculum to produce it.


Nicholas Agar, professor of Ethics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, is a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Australia, and the author of “How to Be Human in the Digital Economy”, MIT Press, 2019. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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