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Still in Good Shape? The Role of the Humanities in Higher Education and Society

4/3/2012 | German House New York

Still in Good Shape? The Role of the Humanities in Higher Education and Society

This event addressed the challenges, contributions, and progress in humanities education and research.

In today’s uncertain economic climate, both students and educators are pondering the importance of the humanities for higher education and society as a whole. Higher education and research institutions in both Europe and North America are facing tighter budgets and shifting sources of funding as well as pressures for measurable and applicable research results. Still, the notion of educating humanists has not yet been lost. On April 3, 2012, the German Center for Research and Innovation, the German University Alliance, and the Freie Universität Berlin brought together international experts in a panel discussion at the German House to discuss the global challenges and outlook for the humanities.

Prof. Peter-André Alt, President of Freie Universität (FU) Berlin, one of the leading European research universities in the humanities and social sciences, initiated the panel discussion, which was moderated by Prof. Mark Anderson from Columbia University. During his presentation, Prof. Alt outlined systemic cutbacks in funding for humanities education and research, and a reduction in the variety of humanities fields at German universities – the two German institutions represented on the panel being rare exceptions. These cutbacks, Prof. Alt said, are now combined with a generation that lacks great humanists who are willing to take a stand in public discourse. Alt argued that the neglect of the humanities is equivalent to a loss of quality in education and research for all fields, as the humanities provide a historical consciousness, broaden ethical horizons, and arouse both an awareness of and construction of meaning across disciplines. Because of their wide-reaching influence, the humanities have reason to be self-confident. Prof. Alt argued that instead, however, the fields seem to have lost their intellectual identity – an identity that can only be regained by sharpening their profile. With respect to the funding situation in Germany, Alt agreed with German Consul General Busso von Alvensleben, who in his opening remarks said that the humanities have benefitted greatly from a $15 billion increase in federal spending on education and research in Germany from 2010 to 2013. Prof. Alt pointed out, though, that this statistic represents a portion of the whole picture — the humanities were highly underrepresented in the German Excellence Initiative, and are literally excluded from submitting proposals within the European Union’s 8th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020.

Prof. Don M. Randel, President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, portrayed an even bleaker situation in the United States, where the administration and management of higher education and research is not federally governed, but instead left to states, counties, or towns, and thus lacks coherency. Randel criticized a mentality that seems to promote investment in intellectual progress only if it subsequently increases either the gross domestic product or national security in the United States. Though one could argue that the humanities do both, Randel posited that the true importance of these fields lies in their pursuit of what is fundamental to human beings: their examination of what it means to be human. Randel defended the American model of a liberal arts undergraduate education, with its emphasis on multifaceted coursework rather than a singular focus on one specific field, despite the fact that increasing numbers of students are “voting with their feet” by matriculating in courses that are outside the realm of the humanities. Randal called this shift an example of American consumerism, claiming that young students might not realize how much they will need the skills and knowledge acquired by studying the humanities. He underscored the commitment of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue to convey this message, to raise awareness of the importance of the humanities, and to remain one of the discipline’s biggest financial supporters, especially in light of a lack of federal engagement. Randel pointed out that the most recent budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), US$145 million, is equivalent to the cost of just one F-22 Raptor airplane. This amount represents only a small fraction of the federally-allocated budgets for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.

Prof. Christof Mauch, the founding director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, emphasized the need for interdisciplinary cooperation to secure the future of the humanities. Prof. Mauch stressed that the sciences and humanities have to work together to solve today’s problems, indicating that in some cases “…the humanities might even have to compensate for damage caused by scientific progress.” While some statistical information on the humanities in Germany suggests that they are in good shape, other numbers are not that promising. For example, the humanities receive just ten percent of overall funding for research in Germany. Beyond issues with funding, the field is also understaffed: ten percent of professors in Germany teach within the humanities fields, yet overall, 25% of students receive a humanities education, a ratio equivalent to roughly one professor per 100 students. According to Mauch, the challenges the humanities face in Germany have evolved around the phenomenon that large-scale research funding is a mixed blessing. He points out that with too many scholars conducting the same research in the same place, humanists can become increasingly entrenched in hyper-specialization. In addition, he believes that German academia relies too heavily on federal funding instead of looking for other funding sources. Additional concerns mentioned by Prof. Mauch include a lingering lack of internationalization among faculty, and the relative inflexibility of the path to a professorship in Germany (“Habilitation”).

Prof. Chad Gaffield, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, while acknowledging the challenges the humanities face, argued that we are simultaneously experiencing deep conceptual changes in these fields that will create immense opportunities for them to move forward and prove their importance and relevance. These changes include: a new emphasis on the humanities’ contribution to society and the fields’ economic value; a growing culture of evaluation and measurement within humanities research and education; the increasing integration of the humanities with other fields of research; the observation that core aspects of the humanities are in sync with key changes in our societies, e.g. the digital age is being embraced with all its challenges and opportunities; and institutions of higher education are rethinking their undergraduate education and adapting it to new demands.

During an engaging discussion with the audience, comprised of representatives from universities in and around New York – not only humanists, but also scientists – several contributors highlighted the differences between “the two cultures” of research, scientists and humanists, and reflected on the necessity for both disciplines and cultures to work together.

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  • Featured Speakers

    • Peter-André Alt

      President, Freie Universität Berlin

    • Chad Gaffield

      President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

    • Christof Mauch

      Director, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

    • Don M. Randel

      President, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

    • Mark Anderson (Moderator)

      Professor of German, Columbia University