Judith Shulevitz: Sci-Fi Will Save the Liberal Artstags: history, liberal arts, humanities, New Republic
Judith Shulevitz is the science editor of The New Republic.
The liberal arts are very old and very distinguished, and those who teach them are among the bitterest people I know. University presidents, trustees, and state legislatures are slashing their funding or getting rid of their subjects altogether. (French, German, Italian, and the classics will likely be the first to go.) Governor Rick Scott of Florida thinks that state universities should charge higher tuition to students who choose majors in fields that don’t lead directly to jobs. Even the social sciences are endangered: Republicans in Congress have been trying to pass an amendment to an appropriations bill that would forbid the National Science Foundation from funding any research in the human sciences not considered essential for America’s security or economic interests. Meanwhile, in their pristine new laboratories, the natural sciences thrive. “Spending for the humanities research in 2011 amounted to less than half of one percent of the amount dedicated to science and engineering research and development in the United States,” English professor Homi Bhabha said at a gloomy conference on the future of the humanities at Harvard this April.
How does one make the “clear and compelling case for the liberal arts?” asked an alarmed report submitted to Congress a couple weeks ago. It’s not hard. The most popular case, at the moment, is the preservationist one: The job of the humanities is “understanding, curating, and transmitting the first four thousand five hundred years of human consciousness,” as Columbia Sanskrit professor Sheldon Pollock put it at the Harvard gathering. Cultivating political character is another defense. The liberal arts education is said to give future citizens the historical perspective and ethical bent required to uphold democracy and avert totalitarianism. Then there’s the answer that flips the question on its head: The humanities are good for questioning whether knowledge has to be good for anything. Personally, I find all of these arguments “clear and compelling,” but I worry that budget-conscious politicians and the heads of cash-starved institutions won’t. If the criterion for funding areas of study must be that they add to American wealth and competitiveness, then I’d like to offer my own only half-unserious case for the liberal arts. I propose that they should survive, and thrive, because they give us science fiction, and science fiction creates jobs and makes us rich....
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