viernes, 27 de febrero de 2009

Are the humanities relevant in the 21st century?

An article this week in the New York Times asserts that the humanities are in peril of becoming irrelevant, a victim of the current economic downturn. The article, titled “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth”, reports on the dwindling offering of humanities courses at universities, and that the humanities “are under greater pressure than ever to justify their existence to administrators, policy makers, students and parents”, lest they “return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the province of the wealthy.”

My first reaction is obvious outrage. Do we really need to justify the humanities? Will the humanities really become the "province" of the wealthy few?

After I blew my gasket, and started thinking rationally again, I realized that, in our very complex, industrial, capitalistic world, we do need to justify the teaching of the humanities. It’s not enough to argue that the humanities are an integral part of the universal education of every human; or that they help in the search of truth, individualism, reality, or whatever other abstract measure of value we can come up with.

In a recent essay I wrote for the Journal of Hospital Medicine, titled “The medical humanities as tools for the teaching of patient-centered care” I argued that to include the humanities in the medical school curriculum “in hopes that the clarification of such association will provide medical students a broad-based assessment, a so-called world-view, from which they can become introspective and humanistic when faced with their patients” is a lofty goal, but that “the driving force behind the medical humanities should shift to a quantifiable, evidence-based assessment of its goals.”

We must evolve our thinking for the inclusion of the humanities within higher education, and turn it into a value-added argument. It’s not enough to say they are an integral part of general education. We must demonstrate that the humanities add value to a person’s educational and vocational goals, and that these goals positively impact the bottom line of the corporation or organization that would hire them.

In my position as a medical educator and a humanities scholar, I argue every day that the interaction of the medical humanities in medical school education is valuable. After banging my head against the wall a few times, I switched tactics and set out to demonstrate the value of the humanities in medical education by proving that doctors educated not only in science (anatomy, physiology, etc.) but also in the humanities have a positive, measurable impact on patient satisfaction and health outcomes.

Why can’t we demonstrate the same thing for the humanities in general: that a humanities education makes workers more reliable; that they have better analytical skills and perform better than their peers; that a humanities education improves upon work and costumer satisfaction, and provides a better educated, more complete individual? Why can’t we prove that, in our increasingly technologically dependent and myopic world, the individual educated in the humanities adds value to a corporation or a government agency by having a wide angle view of situations and projects, and becoming an integral person in the accomplishment of the mission of the organization?

It may sound counterintuitive, but the way forward for the humanities is to scientifically prove their relevance.

Only when get beyond the feel-good reasons for the inclusion of the humanities in higher education, and decide to demonstrate their value in economic terms, will the death knell for the humanities stop once and for all.

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