By Jon Baskin & Anastasia Berg
Editors of The Point
This fall, as college students filter hesitantly into socially distanced classrooms or adjust their Zoom backgrounds for seminars they attend from their bedrooms, the usual debates about the aims of higher education have taken a back seat to more pressing concerns. Many colleges and universities are now fighting for survival.
Even before the pandemic upended university budgets, many schools faced challenges — falling enrollments, reduced public funding and the prospect of corporate restructuring. Now liberal arts colleges are shutting down at even higher rates, and job losses at colleges are multiplying (nonprofit private and public institutions shed an estimated 337,000 jobs from February to August, according to federal data). Some predict that unless Congress passes a new stimulus bill with aid for higher education, things are about to get much worse. Words like “apocalyptic” and “extinction” keep showing up in otherwise dispassionate analyses of the situation.
In the midst of such an existential crisis for higher education, is it even reasonable to expect the humanities to survive? At first glance, it might seem that the contentious philosophical and ideological debates that forged conservative and liberal ideas of higher education have little to offer us now. Yet we believe not only that those debates remain relevant, but also that the challenges brought on by the pandemic make them essential to being able to imagine any kind of future for humanistic thinking.
Expanding the reach of humanistic education, however, means more than broadening the media channels by which we transmit scholarly insights. It also means putting more thought — and for those who can, financial support — into creating opportunities for humanistic reflection in our everyday lives. This could include helping to design robust liberal arts curriculums for secondary-school students or supporting the growing stable of “great books” schools like the Living Water School in Maryland; working with companies like Books@Work, which use English professors to moderate seminars about short stories in workplaces; and valuing continuing education courses (like those for professionals and older people at Chicago’s Graham School) as seriously as we value traditional undergraduate education. And it means undertaking those activities not as experts or sages, but as partners in a continuing dialogue about how we should live together.
Read the full article at The New York Times.