Reimagining the Humanities for a Changing Future

Thursday, July 5, 2018
"There is no such thing as a starving humanist. These people are employed in all kinds of jobs in all kinds of fields," Alain-Philippe Durand says of a renewed focus on the humanities at the University of Arizona.
 

By Kristina Makansi, UA Research, Discovery and Innovation

Silos are out. Integration is in. And the humanities are here to stay.

For decades, students from around the world flocked to American institutions of higher learning and employers clamored to hire them upon graduation. As demands for specialized technical skills increased, colleges and universities scrambled to expand departments and add courses to allow students to dig deeper into narrow disciplines. Some went so far as to suggest the need for highly specialized technology experts meant the usefulness of a broad, humanities-based, liberal arts education was over.

Not so fast.

According to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, many employers, especially in high tech, say the most important skills for career success are critical thinking, communication, teamwork and the ability to be a lifelong learner. In fact, in one study done at Google, managers ranked such “soft skills” as the most valuable while technical subject-matter skills ranked last.

Gail Burd, the UA's senior vice provost for academic affairs and a co-author of the NAS publication "The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Higher Education," says studies repeatedly show employees who have the ability to write, think critically, work in a team and value differences are highly valued by employers.

“At the beginning of the NAS study, we quote Albert Einstein, who famously said, ‘All religions, arts and sciences are branches from the same tree,’” Burd says. “I firmly believe that.

“Students learn more when they’re put in situations where they have to bring multiple fields together,” Burd continued. “They have to learn how to pull information from more than one discipline, synthesize it and come up with new solutions to problems. Integrating the humanities throughout the curricula promotes the kind of thinking that helps you see gray areas, think about the space between concepts, ideas or feelings, and see how they all connect. And that helps you come up with better solutions.”

“We’re seeing all this movement nationally and internationally toward the humanities,” says Alain-Philippe Durand, Dean of the UA College of Humanities. “The problem is that no one — students, parents the general public — knows what it is. Everyone knows what law, management, science, etc., are. But the humanities? No one has a clue.”

To get the word out, Durand’s first task upon becoming dean was changing the branding and messaging around the humanities. Durand also reached out to alumni and found that humanities graduates are employed in virtually every industry.

“Critical thinking, collaboration, communication, problem solving, leadership, adaptability, diversity, intercultural competence, multilingualism and empathy — those are the skills we teach. Those are the skills employers want. That’s who we are,” he said. “There is no such thing as a starving humanist. These people are employed in all kinds of jobs in all kinds of fields, and they are creating successful careers based on what they learned in our college. Now, we’re reaching across campus to bring humanities-based skills to students in other disciplines.”

After much planning and coordination, the College of Humanities announced the launch of a completely new department focusing on a transdisciplinary model that combines intercultural and professional skills. The Department of Public and Applied Humanities will welcome its first cohort of students this fall into the Bachelor of Arts in applied humanities.

The bachelor's degree is essentially two degrees in one, pairing the humanistic approaches taught in the College of Humanities with the professional skills taught in other colleges. Students may choose from concentrations in business administration, public health, fashion studies, or spatial organization and design thinking, all with a humanities core.

“The new department and degree are designed to teach students to think about the world and their place within it in transdisciplinary ways,” says Judd Ruggill, founding head of the new department. “Our goal is to help students develop the skills and mindset to not only be successful, but to consciously and actively enrich their communities. After all, whether you’re starting a business, working in health care, or creating new spaces and sensibilities, you’re applying your understanding of the human condition to the improvement of that condition.”

Today’s students must be prepared to solve the grand challenges of the world as tomorrow’s workers. Burd, Durand and Ruggill all agree the challenges are human challenges, so the solutions must be human solutions. Thanks to the humanities, UA students will be ready.