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Are liberal arts a luxury during a recession?

As the economy weakens and universities make painful budget cuts, liberal arts and humanities programs are increasingly under threat. These programs of study-which generally include the arts, history, philosophy, religion, gender and cultural studies, languages, and visual and performing arts-are not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation, many argue. Instead, these subjects provide a framework for developing key ideas and concepts that enable us to understand and make meaning of the ways in which people and societies have organized their world under particular conditions. Essentially, the humanities provide essential soft skills necessary for almost any career.

But in an economy where getting and having a job is becoming more difficult than ever, some critics who have long derided the humanities usefulness in preparing students for practical, useful work are reigniting the debate. In an article headlined, "In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth," The New York Times recently reported that scholars are already seeing troubling signs in colleges and universities such as hiring freezes and unfilled faculty positions in humanities departments.

Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University, was quoted in the article saying, "Although people in humanities have always lamented the state of the field, they have never felt quite as much of a panic that their field is becoming irrelevant."  

But not everyone is panicking. Many are offended by the notion that the humanities are irrelevant in a time of economic crisis. The New York Times received a flurry of responses to the article. In one, Sara Ogger, Executive Director of the New York Humanities Council wrote: "The humanities couldn’t be more useful. Our nation needs a workforce of learners, willingness to question long-held assumptions, and new ways to enrich our communities. Seen this way, the humanities belong to us all."

Another reader, commenting on the article, wrote: "A message to the CEOs of the Big Three: An appreciation of literature will help you to understand the lives of your workers. An understanding of the arts and history may help you to imagine better vehicles. A knowledge of classical rhetoric would have helped you to craft a compelling case for Congress."

The article’s author, education writer Patricia Cohen, noted: "As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly 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."

Those who do not see the usefulness of the humanities in colleges are mounting campaigns to purge higher education of programs long deemed "too liberal" to be taught on campus. In Georgia, House Republicans announced a grassroots effort to get rid of professors who teach courses on queer theory. Georgia State Rep. Charlice Byrd (R) said those subjects are "not considered higher education," the Athens Banner-Herald reported. Calvin Hill, Vice Chair of the Georgia House Appropriations Committee declared, "Our job is to educate our people in sciences, business, math" and professors aren’t going to meet those needs "by teaching a class in queer theory."

However, many would argue that liberal arts and public humanities programs teach us how to be inquisitive and logical, encouraging communication and collaboration-all important skills for the workforce. During a time when people are unable to afford other luxuries, isn’t active civic engagement, critical thinking, and curiosity about the world essential for progress? 

Are the liberal arts important during an economic crisis? What will we lose as a nation if liberal arts and humanities courses and public funding for the humanities are drastically cut? What is the real value of a liberal arts education? Can that value only be measured in how much one earns? How can we make sure humanities programs remain an important part of higher education? Who decides which topics are the "best" to study? How do the humanities in colleges and in public life enrich society in practical ways?

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