There’s been a torrent of news over the past few weeks concerning the allotment of funding for the humanities at universities on both sides of the Atlantic. While budget cuts are certainly at the front of students’ minds in Britain, financial hardship forcing the State University of New York at Albany to eliminate its French department alongside programs in Italian, Latin, classics, and theatre sparked outcry in the United States over the supposedly imminent death of humanities.
In today’s world, with pushes for technological progress seeming to override all other concerns, the hard sciences are considered good investments, with the majority of humanities subjects correspondingly brushed aside as subjects that only those with extra time or money can afford to spend their days absorbed in. Why pore over literature or immerse oneself in a foreign language, when if you’re going to become a computer scientist, you’ll just be able to use an automatic translator or read someone else’s summary on the internet? Has it never occurred to people who spout this sort of argument that it might be nice to form one’s own opinions about these subjects?
Those who contend that the study of history is useless would do well to heed the oft-repeated warning that history tends to repeat itself. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government – except, of course, for all the others that have been tried. It’s all well and good to argue that of course the enlightened world knows that democracy is good, but if we stop teaching history to children, eventually no one’s going to remember that all sorts of utopian experiments ultimately failed, and our mechanically-taught descendants are going to fall into traps whose cycles have at this time been hampered because of our recognition of historical patterns.
But to sacrifice a humanities education would be to the detriment not only of the United States or of Britain, but to the world at large. The ability to reel off the elements of the periodic table on demand, or solve complex abstract equations, is certainly necessary to some careers and may even be an increasingly useful type of skill. However, learning these skills in a vacuum would produce a world full of scientists who cannot carry on a conversation about anything outside their specialty, who have trouble relating to others and are unable to think in cross-cultural contexts. To avoid this, continued study of the humanities is essential.