I was very pleased with the recent announcement of the new Humanities Center at the U. S. Military Academy, to be located prominently on Trophy Hill at West Point, which will provide collaborative spaces for academics and cadets and serve as a hub for interdisciplinary work that brings insights from the liberal arts and humanities into defense and military challenges. The U. S. Army might seem like an unlikely champion of the liberal arts, but the leader of the development of the Center, Col. David Harper, the head of the English and philosophy department, says that “There is a remarkable synergy between the military and the liberal arts; the two work so well together to develop leaders who are reflective and who are critical thinkers……our mission is to develop leaders of character for the nation, and we think the foundation of that is a broad liberal arts education”.
This is such a refreshing attitude in an environment that has over recent years almost totally discredited the value of the liberal arts in higher education in favor of those disciplines entirely devoted to vocational preparation driven by immediate cost/benefit analyses.
One of the most egregious examples of this misguided thinking came from a recent Wall Street Journal op/ed written by Chris Pope and Tim Rice of the Manhattan Institute, which is highly critical of the requirement for core courses in the liberal arts for medical students, blaming this requirement for much of the high cost of medical care! While they allow that “some premed education in fields such as biology is clearly desirable, there is little evidence that history, literature, or social sciences is worth the additional cost it imposes”. Thankfully, this position was blasted by several responses from readers, including doctors, one of whom said, “Liberal arts degrees teach future doctors how to think critically, ask the right questions, work in teams, and advocate effectively for patients. Those skills have reinforced my development…..I cannot imagine working without them”.
In a great essay by Paula Marantz Cohen, a dean and English professor at Drexel University, she describes the problem as that science and the humanities are inherently incommensurate endeavors. Science moves forward with its discoveries, so that the past is the foundation for the present and future. Literature and the humanities do not move forward in this way. This is difficult to grasp for many progressives and fuels the drive to render the humanities scientific, with often monstrous results as we have witnessed, particularly in the last century. The unique role of the humanities, she says in one of the best explanations I have read, “is to recognize genius, revere complexity, and be deliberative in judging character and action, in life as in art. Without training in this habit of mind, we become a polarized society with no tools to communicate across difference. Nothing happens except name-calling and retribution”.
West Point gets it.