Opinion | A Debate Over the Value of the Humanities

To the Editor:

Re “College Budgets Question Value of Humanities” (front page, Nov. 5):

The debate about the value of a liberal arts education is hardly over, despite attempts to be definitive via cuts in funding for the humanities.

Higher education is about more than job training. A broad-based curriculum educates young people to be productive members of society who contribute to the overall well-being of those around them, from adding beauty through art to solving problems with the latest scientific breakthroughs. A liberal arts and science education is an education for life.

The liberal arts and sciences, including those embraced at Reed and at colleges around the country, encourage students to break traditional boundaries and creatively shape their futures.

We nurture biologists who are also watercolor artists; dancers who study computer science; psychology majors who are creative writers. The ability to draw insight and inspiration from across disciplines leads to innovation and the betterment of society.

Audrey Bilger
Portland, Ore.
The writer is the president of Reed College.

To the Editor:

When most young people’s formal education ended with graduation from high school, it mattered very little what the few who went on to college majored in. But the high cost of a bachelor’s degree today, coupled with the proliferation of questionable majors, has dramatically changed their motivation for further study.

Who can blame them for their obsession with careerism? The humanities don’t pay the rent.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles
The writer was a lecturer in the U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Education.

To the Editor:

In your Nov. 5 issue, the front page reports that humanities programs at universities are being dropped, while the Opinion section carries a column by David Brooks (“How to Stay Sane in Brutalizing Times”), which relies extensively on arguments and policies drawn from the humanities.

Mr. Brooks cites Thucydides, “The Iliad,” Aeschylus, C.S. Lewis, Iris Murdoch and others to make a compelling argument that literature from the past proves to be a useful tool in responding to modern-day angst and despair in today’s America.

This alone should indicate that the function of humanities degrees and programs is to make our students not only better critical thinkers, but also better people. Eliminating humanities programs is shortsighted indeed.

Susan Zinner
The writer is a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Northwest.

To the Editor:

Although a molecular biology major at Pomona College, I was required to take humanities classes. Besides the subject matter, those classes taught me analysis, empathy, a broader worldview and many important life lessons.

To this day I know it was those classes that made me a better doctor — more than the many science classes I took. The schools that eliminate these programs are choosing short-term gain over long-term value.

Victoria I. Paterno
Los Angeles

To the Editor:

Re “So Many Strands of Streisand in Memoir Long in the Making” (front page, Nov. 7):

I enjoyed Alexandra Jacobs’s review of Barbra Streisand’s new book, which arrived on my doorstep on Tuesday. Yes, it’s long at 970 pages, but die-hard Streisand fans would still read it if it were 2,000 pages.

From the day my Aunt Annie brought home the “My Name Is Barbra” album when I was 6 in 1965, I’ve been a fan. How could she possibly contain her life so far in fewer pages?

We should all be so brave to live the life she has chosen. Bravo, Barbra!

Lori Powell
Lakeland, Fla.

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