With the start of each new school year, the same question seems to arise: What is the value of a humanities education? While detractors of language and literature programs argue that humanities education is irrelevant, many voices have emerged in the local and national press to remind us of the continuing importance of the humanities in a rapidly changing world and in an unprecedented political climate.
These assessments are consistent with the MLA’s findings throughout its long history of research and advocacy work. In 2009, after eighteen months of study and lively debate by a committee of humanities professors, college presidents, deans, and visiting consultants from the legal and medical fields, the MLA concluded that the skills acquired in English and modern language departments are “key qualifications for full participation in the social, political, economic, literary, and cultural life of the twenty-first century.” Their report finds that reading and writing, as well as translation, interpretation, and cross-cultural communication, among other skills, are vital in an increasingly globalized world.
Nonetheless, humanities departments are facing many challenges. For years, colleges have reported a decline in humanities enrollment, even as the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded each year has risen steadily since the late 1960s. Additionally, literature and language professors have reported that humanities students do not always clearly understand the expectations and objectives of their majors. In response to these circumstances, the Teagle Foundation invited the MLA and other organizations to study the relation between the goals of humanities fields and those of liberal arts institutions more generally.
As a result of their collaborative study, the MLA working group found that the types of knowledge and skills taught in humanities majors are central to the project of liberal education. The liberal arts have prioritized teaching students to think critically and analytically and to communicate information clearly. Beyond this, students develop “historical and comparative perspectives . . . to become informed global citizens.”
These have also long been the goals of language and literature departments, which teach modes of critical reading and writing that require “sustained, deep engagements” with complex material. Studying literary texts and new languages “open[s] perceptions of structure, texture, and the layering of meanings that challenge superficial comprehension, expand understanding, and hone analytic skills.” The group found that, besides learning to communicate effectively, humanities students become fluent in new forms of media and communication and learn to process information through sophisticated historical and cross-cultural perspectives.
To continue fostering these skills, the committee offers four key recommendations. The committee advises humanities departments to develop coherent programs of study that make expectations clear to students, promote teamwork among teachers, collaborate actively with departments outside the humanities, and develop empirical methods of assessing the relative successes and shortcomings of their programs.