We need humanities more than ever

by Sara Pankenier Weld

How can a man who is warm understand a man who is cold? This is a question posed by a prisoner in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who himself spent many years in Soviet labor camps. As a student in my humanities classroom once noted, by reading a book like this, a man who is warm can better understand a man who is cold.

This is the power of books in granting a reader into experience far from their own. We need the humanities because they help us better understand the experiences of one another, which enhances understanding across differences and divides and promotes peace at home and elsewhere.

Failures of empathy in the U.S. and around the world, as evidenced by incivility, conflict and war, demonstrate how we need the humanities today more than ever to remind us of our fundamental and shared humanity. Yet the number of humanities degrees conferred has steadily decreased since 2012, and humanities programs are under threat nationwide. For example, West Virginia University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro closed programs, while the state of Indiana is proposing to reduce the number of world language, literature and culture class requirements from its high school curriculum.

If Solzhenitsyn’s account of a Soviet prison camp seems distant from today, one need only remember Alexei Navalny, who suffered under harsh conditions in an Arctic prison camp and whose death in February demonstrated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutality toward Russia’s most visible opposition leader. Currently waging an unjustified war on Ukraine, Russia has been cast as a key enemy, yet Russian literature, often written under repressive conditions and itself under attack, continues to offer wisdom on everything under the sun, as students discover in my humanities classroom: the horror of war, the meaning of life, the problem of death, the power of art, failure to communicate, love and loss.

Still today, nothing else can so powerfully simulate an experience of being someone else in another time and place. For example, a book can offer the experience of being a young person who has a mistaken idea, murdering someone for it, and viscerally feeling the crime’s consequences even before any punishment begins, and thus understanding why one should not kill. The humanities investigate and offer this kind of why, tackling the big questions, the ones most worth asking and the ones we forget at our peril.

To better understand people from other world regions on their own terms, there is no better way than to learn another language or study abroad. Thought itself may be reframed by learning another language, such as Russian, which divides nouns into things that have a soul and those that do not. Study abroad reveals that people everywhere, despite conflicts and wars that divide us, are all alike.

Not only do the humanities make good people and good citizens, but they also are good for future careers. Despite a widespread misperception that a humanities degree is it not good for any job, humanities training actually is good for every job. Skills such as critical thinking, effective written and oral communication and collaboration with others, including those from different backgrounds, are in demand from employers. The U.S. government needs foreign language expertise and supports the study of critical languages that are crucial for national security and in international relations. Global or multicultural understanding often figures in university mission statements, while society needs universities to equip young people to tackle problems on a global scale and to cultivate skills and flexibility of mind to deal with the unexpected.

Yet, even as the world stands at the brink of catastrophe and conflict, meaning such skills are needed more than ever, language enrollments are declining. This foreign language deficit leaves society less prepared to face global challenges, despite a recent reorientation toward Russia and China due to national security concerns. Study abroad in China has declined dramatically, to the detriment of foreign relations in the future, while opportunities to study abroad in Russia have shut down completely. Yet hope is not lost, since programs to study Russian have sprung up in Armenia, Georgia, Baltic countries and Central Asia, giving double the bang for the buck in learning about multiple world regions at once.

The world situation today calls for more support for the humanities, the study of foreign languages and study-abroad opportunities, since there is no better way to cultivate understanding of other people across boundaries and to discover common humanity around the world.

Yet cuts to the humanities are rising, demonstrating the impact of a decade of investment in only science, technology, engineering and math fields and the denigration of non-STEM fields. Thankfully, the solution to the humanities crisis is surprisingly simple: “The programs that are thriving are the ones that the schools are investing in,” Modern Language Association Executive Director Paula Krebs observed. “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

So the humanities crisis is actually a funding crisis. Reversing it will benefit global understanding. It is time to rediscover the value of the humanities for all humanity.

Sara Pankenier Weld is a professor of Russian and comparative literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project.