In praise of liberal arts

Number of university students opting to study humanities decreases yet again to just 7.5%; after the army Israelis tend to pursue "no nonsense" subjects.

Library 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Library 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The crisis in Israeli universities’ humanities departments is deepening. As we gear up for the new academic year, yet another decrease has been registered in the number of university students studying subjects such as history, literature, languages, Jewish studies or philosophy.
Of the total number of students registered for the academic year of 2011-12, just 7.5 percent have chosen to study in one of the humanities departments, down from 7.9% last year.
This year’s modest drop comes after a long trend of dwindling interest in the humanities. In 1999, for instance, humanities departments were the second most popular after social sciences, making up 18.5% of the student body.
Part of the decline in the number of students learning humanities has to do with Israeli idiosyncrasies. In the early 1990s, for instance, smaller colleges began for the first time to compete with established universities.
Students with mediocre grades or low psychometric test scores who were once unable to get accepted to universities’ prestigious, job-oriented faculties such as law, economics or psychology, could now apply to smaller colleges with less rigorous requirements, instead of settling for the universities’ humanities departments.
Also, after a significant military stint (a minimum of two years for women and three years for men), Israeli university students are more likely than their American or European counterparts to pursue a “no nonsense” course of studies that leads to employment after graduation.
And Israeli universities are particularly focused on competing to enter the rankings of the top 50 universities in the world. Bolstering the hard sciences and emphasizing faculty research at the expense of humanities and teaching – which count for less in the rankings – are the most effective ways of achieving this goal.
But the decline of humanities is also part of a larger cultural and social trend plaguing the West that prioritizes efficiency, tangibility and productivity above all else. Since one’s familiarity with Homer or Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the Talmud or Shakespeare cannot be commoditized, it remains unappreciated.
A generation of university and college graduates are the product of an increasingly myopic educational experience which might have imparted the know-how to get things done, but not the reasons why to bother.
A good liberal-arts education resulting from the in-depth study of classic texts and timeless ideas provides a number of important skills essential for the education of a new generation of leaders in the fields of journalism, politics, military and even business and science.
On the most basic level, liberal-arts graduates tend to hone written, verbal expression and critical thinking abilities.
But on a deeper level, exposure to the greatest thought humanity has to offer broadens intellectual horizons and might help innovators in many different fields to fuse diverse ideas and concepts in creative and unique ways.
THANKFULLY, A NUMBER of initiatives aspire to reverse the decline of liberal arts. Perhaps most significant among them is the Shalem Center’s ambitious project to create Israel’s first liberal-arts college, slated to open its doors in the fall of 2012.
Meanwhile, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, who in addition to heading the socioeconomic reform committee that bears his name, is also chairman of the Planning and Budget Committee of the Council for Higher Education, has set in motion changes in the way undergraduates earn degrees. Students will be required to take “prerequisite courses” that are outside their specific fields of expertise to broaden general knowledge.
It is impossible to measure the damage caused by narrow- mindedness. But there can be little doubt that one-dimensional thinking debilitates.
Our founders – from Yitzhak Tabenkin and Berl Katzenelson to David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, and many others – were men and women with profound knowledge of their own culture as well as the best of Western culture. As a result they all had well articulated world views on how best to go about creating the Jewish people’s first sovereign state in nearly two millennia.
One of the goals of our higher-education system must be to produce a cadre of exceptional men and women comparable in stature to Israel’s founders who are capable of leading Israel into the 21st century.
A strong grounding in humanities is essential for achieving this goal.