I feel I am in a unique position to discuss something I’ve personally ignored until now: people have the most ridiculous view of the liberal arts.
I majored in Humanities and Sciences. I took Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Microbiology, Biochemistry, Anatomy and Immunology. I also took a lot of liberal arts courses with fruity names like “Views of the Cosmos” and “Greek and Roman Philosophy.”
By far the most worthless classes I took were the concrete sciences (Immunology was arguably the most useful). The most important classes I took were “Philosophy of Ethics” and “20th Century European History.”
And yet, there is an alarming trend at colleges and universities. Humanities departments are underfunded and in some cases being closed in order to meet budget demands. No one would dare cut sports funding or the precious six to seven figure salaries of department administrators, but the humanities are seen as unimportant.
I have commented before that I have noticed many people seem to think critical thinking is dead or dying, and I wonder if this is because the humanities are dead or dying.
I never thought critically in a science course, ever. I would sit in lecture halls for 3-5 hours a week, go to a lab where I followed a recipe and copied verbatim what I was told to write in my lab journal. I took multiple choice tests that had me spit out information as it was taught to me. In short, science courses as they are today require no critical thinking; scientific research may require such, though even then it is largely a series of blind trials with most ending in failure.
One of the most ridiculous complaints I see about the liberal arts is when the above claim is leveled at courses pertaining to, say, literature. I have heard people say that unless you spit out what the professor told you about what a poem means, you will not pass.
Let me be quite explicit: I have hated most of my humanities professors over the years. Some of them I have gotten into yelling matches where the term “Nazi” escaped my lips. I got A’s in those classes. In fact, the professor I called a Nazi gave me the only A on the final term paper in the whole class, and I took another course with her next semester.
You don’t get an A in the humanities for agreeing with the professor. In my last few years as a college student, I got to know a couple of the professors very well and spent a lot of time with a few. I also tutored at the university for 2 years after I graduated, and I read a lot of papers by a lot of students with a lot of comments from the professors.
And I heard a lot of complaints that sounded something like, “The professor doesn’t like me…”
Bullshit. These people couldn’t write a decent grocery list to save their life. Rampant misspellings, enormous leaps in logic, quotes without citations… these students basically didn’t want to do the work of supporting their ideas. While I know there must be some out there that break this mold, all the humanities professors I ever knew, had, or met had no problem not only passing a student who fundamentally disagreed with them, but they would give them an A if they met the required criterion in matters of style and rhetoric.
What’s more, the classes people remember most are not the ones where they were lectured at for hours. My favorite classes had a lot of open discussion, where the professor simply acted as moderator. This is, in my humble opinion, how critical thinking is taught.
Both my Ethics and Euro History class were largely open discussion. Both classes assigned a reading that would prep us on the topics of discussion for the next class, and in Euro History there would be about fifteen minutes of introductory lecture, but at that point (and from the beginning of most Ethics classes), the floor would be open to sharing our thoughts and opinions.
When I hear people who have never been to college criticize someone for having gone to college, I’m never sure what to think. I try to avoid the stereotypical, “Well, they’re just jealous,” stance. While it may be a case of sour grapes, I suspect they truly are convinced that college is a waste of time and/or money, or that it just churns out carbon-copy liberals (even though, in my experience, there’s more over-privileged Republicans at universities than in the general public).
I don’t flaunt my degree, in fact I think this is the first time I’ve bothered to mention it, and the only reason I brought it up was because it was directly a propos to what I was discussing. Because I have had both intensive science and humanities training at the college level, I can say without a shred of doubt that science education, while based on the critical thinking of others, stifles creativity and critical thinking, while the humanities not only fosters critical thinking, it instills a lust for learning.
The sciences teach us how, but the humanities ask “why?” and “should?” Isn’t that what every ideology today claims we are lacking? Why, then, is there an unmitigated assault on the liberal arts?