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Barricades

The Humanities Man the Barricades Against Growing Criticism by Jesse Saffron.

The opening message was roundly cheered—it was exactly what the crowd of roughly 150 professors and alumni came to hear at the “Public Universities, the Humanities, and Education in North Carolina” event held on October 10 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In a more enlightened era, history professor and event moderator Lloyd Kramer said in his introduction, policymakers were committed to the liberal arts, as evidenced by Congress’s creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in 1965. But today, he continued, higher education officials “must constantly defend the arts, creativity, [and the] humanities” against an incursion by powerful outside forces who conflate university education with vocational training.

While such remarks may receive ringing endorsements when preaching to the academic “choir,” they do not do justice to the opposition’s argument. Heightened skepticism regarding the value of the humanities and liberal arts is not just the result of external factors that are outside of higher education’s control, such as economic malaise or policymakers’ job-centricity. Internal problems related to debased curricula and hyper-politicization, for instance, may be more harmful to the future of the humanities.

Unfortunately, at the event, sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program in the Humanities and Human Values of the College of Arts and Sciences, university leaders failed to acknowledge those problems, much less take ownership of them.

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