Age: 15, Grade: 8
School Name: Dalton School, New York, NY
Educator: Edwards Catherine
Category: Critical Essay
Never before has our country’s future been so threatened.
Not by foreign plots, or spies, or wars in far-off countries, but by something happening right here, right now, in this very nation, and in our very communities.
In fact, it is so insidious, that, in the space of a generation, it has the power to weaken the foundation of our country and to silence our voices as citizens.
I speak of the death of the humanities.
The humanities are not the study of any one field—history, social science, literature, art—but rather, the study of them all. The humanities are an attempt to understand and record our world: how does studying Monet, Aristotle, or Confucius make us human? The humanities are the search for a unified answer to knowledge and life. Yet, this field—the study of which has existed for centuries in every corner of the globe—is quietly dying.
Many say the problem lies with the excessive commercialization of our world. How can the pure, uncorrupted study of life exist in a culture where everything is quantified, monetized, and marketed? Others, still, think the problem lies with the excessive specialization of the humanities. Why, they complain, is a search for the “big questions” divided into so many fields covering relative minutiae?
Whatever the cause, over the past ten years, college enrollment in the traditional ‘humanities’ courses—art, philosophy, social sciences, literature—has decreased by more than thirty percent. Over the same span, enrollment in the computer sciences has risen by more than 25 percent. The data are clear: a new generation is increasingly turning its back on humanities in favor of more career-ready and lucrative fields.
But the problem begins far before employment or college: a notable shift is occurring in primary and secondary education, as well. In fact, our schools are not at all immune to such changes. Over the past years, primary and secondary education—across the nation— has shifted increasingly away from the humanities towards the sciences at younger and younger ages. The effects of such a shift in the national focus we feel every day.
The humanities urge us to consider the purposes of our actions in serving society—not whether we can do something, but whether we should.
However, as we deemphasize the study of such questions, we are in danger of losing the power of these questions altogether.
No doubt, in the coming decades, we will see unimaginable improvements in the sciences—in medicine, in technology, in the expansion of our horizons. But such technological improvements will pose new and challenging questions. Genomic sequencing, for example, has rapidly advanced our ability to stop the spread of viruses before they become epidemics, but “genetically engineered children” sounds frighteningly close to “eugenics.” Who will ask these fraught questions?
Without the humanities asking “should we be undertaking this experiment” or “how might this breakthrough change the character of our society,” technological advancement proceeds unchecked. In short, the humanities are not an answer, but a question; not a solution, but a problem posed… they are an eternal inquiry into what makes us us and why…
In a world obsessed with solving, proving, identifying, innovating, and then moving on, the humanities are ever in danger, and therefore evermore crucial for ensuring a thoughtful future, for ourselves, for our schools, and for our country.