For my latest column, I interviewed professors from the departments of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, English and Philosophy to try and get a sense of the health of the arts as an academic field today.
Although answers varied, they all have important insight into the treatment of the arts — a subject that doesn’t seem to be pushed as a viable educational choice compared to the STEM subjects, in my opinion.
As far as I know, many arts students and instructors share that opinion due to their own experiences in the arts.
I asked firstly what the arts have to offer the world.
Dr. Christopher Lockett, a professor in our English department, noted that English specifically “train[s] your mind,” with the goal of thinking and reading better by the end of the semester.
Meanwhile, Dr. Peter Trnka of our philosophy department, quoted Indian scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak when she wrote that “the goal of a humanities education is to work at the impossible task of producing a general will for social justice…” (as written in her essay on postcolonialism in Janus Unbound: Journal of Critical Studies).
This quote leads to Dr. Trnka’s point that the humanities lend themselves to social justice, and the wish that things were better. The humanities can give a stronger mind, and a desire for equality; two abstract yet fundamental concepts in humanity.
When I asked Prof. Myriam Osorio, who teaches Spanish, she said the long-term commitment of Spanish and other languages adds to “the culture of effort and long term awards.”
So, when a student puts in effort into learning a language, and can see their progress, they may feel proud.
Prof. Osorio added that “learning languages can give students a sense of freedom, empowerment and joy.” Due to the pluralistic society we live in as well, learning languages is essential if we want to improve communication.
Bias toward STEM?
Another question I asked was if they believed that there was a disparity of emphasis between STEM and the arts in academia.
Dr. Lockett said our society wants a product, so it would make sense that STEM, which mainly produces tangible results, is more encouraged than the abstract results of the arts; thus, if there is a bias towards STEM, it can be explained by the deeply rooted societal issue.
Dr. Trnka replied that there was an obvious bias towards STEM; students are discouraged from studying the arts, and programs that are fundamental for education are cut.
Prof. Osorio also brought up the situation in Spanish: she is the only permanent professor in the Spanish sector. She noted that “instructors need to be here for the long term to guarantee consistency and continuity, which is not possible when instructors change every semester.”
What is the general consensus, then? Are the arts under-appreciated in our university and other institutions?
An article written for Forbes by Willard Dix in 2018 also discusses the continuous mistreatment of the arts and the humanities, indicating that this is a widespread issue.
Focusing specifically in the United States, the article noted that many programs in the humanities had been cut throughout the years, making it about economic issues rather than the education they are depriving students of.
This is one of the bigger aspects of this problem: the idea that money is more important than education.
To end this off, I will quote Prof. Osorio again in a question she asked me at the end of our interview: What can be done to save the humanities?
I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to it.