Today the Trump administration announced plans to cut the entire Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. While this is an abhorrent move by a troglodyte administration, it is not as unprecedented as it might seem. Ever since we made STEM the holy grail of education, our whole culture has been systematically devaluing the humanities. From university campaigns to boost their number of STEM majors to jokes about English majors working at Starbucks, we constantly reinforce the message that the humanities are a useless, vestigial field with no application to the real world. The problem runs far deeper than PBS.
The liberal arts education has its roots in ancient Greece. Long before it acquired its derisive modern connotations, liberal arts were considered to be the basic skills that a person needed in order to be a good citizen and to participate in public life. All the way through the nineteenth century, higher education wasn’t seen as a utilitarian tool to increase job prospects, but as an inherent good in and of itself, making people (at the time, mainly wealthy white men) into informed, well-rounded individuals.
It’s no coincidence that the humanities have fallen out of favor now that women make up the majority of college students and the racial education gap is narrower. An attempt to kick the stool out from under us by declaring our predominant areas of study worthless, sure, but there’s an additional reason: Those in power don’t want us to gain access to the skills and knowledge that the humanities provide. Because the humanities are dangerous to the social order.
Art and music nurture our souls.
The classics teach us where democracy came from and how easily it can fall.
Race and gender studies make us wonder if America is really so meritocratic after all.
Theology reminds us that God cares about the most vulnerable among us.
Ethics shows us that being able to get away with something doesn’t make it right.
Literature allows us to put ourselves in another’s shoes.
Foreign languages demonstrate that America isn’t the world.
Rhetoric helps us craft our arguments and spot when someone is feeding us a line.
History allows us to learn from the past.
Philosophy proves that the beliefs we take for granted can be questioned.
Religious studies take the foreignness out of other faiths.
No wonder Donald Trump wants to suppress the humanities. They exist to rattle his throne.