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Guest: What are the humanities worth?

BY MARSHALL POE - GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 24, 2010 7:30 AM

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In response to fiscal pressure, the University of Iowa is cutting graduate programs. The question, of course, is which ones to cut. The university answered that question last week: those in the humanities. American studies, Asian civilization, comparative literature, translation, film studies, German, and linguistics are all on the chopping block, while not a single program in math, science, and engineering is threatened. Why is this? A task force found that the humanities programs are, compared with others (that is, those in the sciences), “weak.” What this means is that they don’t bring in as much external grant money, their applicant pools are smaller, and their students take longer to finish their degrees. All these things are true, but that doesn’t mean these programs are “weak.”

If you expect me to go on and on about how the humanities will “broaden your horizons,” “give you a deeper understanding of the world,” or “make you a better person,” you are going to be disappointed. I think the humanities do all of these things, but that’s irrelevant. What I’m saying is that investment in the humanities pays enormous returns in terms of dollars, cents, and even lives.

Let me give three examples.

After World War II, the United States found itself toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union. Because each side was armed with nuclear weapons, the stakes were survival itself. Yet not only did we avoid nuclear annihilation, but we also managed to defeat Soviet communism without actually attacking the Soviet Union. How did we do that? I can tell you, because I was part (albeit a very small part) of the effort. During the Cold War, the United States poured resources into Russian and Eastern European studies. That money went to institutions of higher education to train “Russia experts,” of which I was one. Because the people of the United States were farsighted enough to support something as esoteric as the study of Russian civilization, we “Russia experts” understood the Russians; and because we did, we were able to inform the American people about them. I have no doubt that this knowledge, firmly rooted in the humanities, helped us avoid Armageddon and helped bring down the USSR peacefully.

Now let’s take another, less happy, example. In the 1960s, America’s relationship with the Islamic nations of the Middle East began to sour. There are many reasons for this, but the important point is that we were thereafter toe-to-toe with Islamic radicalism. The stakes, though not as high as in the Cold War, were very high. We found that out on 9/11. We knew that Islamic radicals were mad at us, but we really couldn’t comprehend why. Without such comprehension, we were powerless to take the steps necessary to cool them off. Why were we so ignorant? This answer is simple: We didn’t study the Middle East or Islam, at least very seriously or on a large scale. Americans did not support the creation of a cadre of “Islam experts,” so no such cadre was available when we needed it before the attacks of 9/11. We didn’t know what was going on and because we didn’t, we could not act appropriately. As a result, thousands of lives and untold treasure has been lost.

Lest you think that this logic only applies to the humanistic study of parts foreign, take an example closer to home. Over its history, the United States has seen a lot of racial and ethnic violence, and it’s true that irrational prejudices continue to exist today on our shores. But if you compare the recent history of the United States to that of other multi-ethnic nations, it’s obvious that our handling of racial and ethnic tensions has been exemplary. Though there were tensions (and still are), all were and continue to be respected as members of our community. How did we accomplish this? One reason is surely that we seriously study American civilization and all the various traditions that compose it. That Native-American, African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American studies stand shoulder-to-shoulder with what we might call “American-American studies” reflects our commitment to walking a mile in each others’ shoes and thereby learning to live together in harmony. The same should be said, incidentally of gay studies, women’s studies, and what might be called “straight male studies”: All of these humanistic disciplines teach us about one another and thereby (to put it plainly) help us avoid killing one another through blind prejudice.

When thinking about educational priorities, it is important to take the long view, something Americans are not always good at. If we myopically focus on this year’s balance sheet, we will see that the UI’s scientists brought it grants, made discoveries, and rapidly trained students, while the UI’s humanists did not to the same degree. But in the long view, things look very different. Where we invested in the humanities consistently over decades, we reaped huge dividends, as in the Cold War; where we neglected to do so, we suffered huge losses, as in 9/11. The world is changing, and so is the United States. If we as people want to prosper in the coming age, we must understand the humans who will make it up. And there is only one way to do this: the humanities.

Marshall Poe is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the history department.


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