Blog Higher Education

The role of higher education and the humanities

Sunset behind Brookings Hall

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we had to act quickly and decisively in response to the onset of COVID-19 here at Washington University, in the United States, and around the world. And what a difficult and unprecedented year it has been! Between the sickness, death, and stress associated with COVID-19; racial violence against people of color and Black people in particular; xenophobia and policies that aim to threaten the vibrancy and diversity of our communities; political polarization and threats to our democracy; and other matters of local and international importance — so many challenges have disrupted our daily lives, impelled us to action, and forced us to reevaluate our most basic assumptions. Such turmoil leads us to pause and reflect on our own circumstances, both as citizens of this country and stewards of this university. At a time when daily realities urge us to consider how we connect with one another, we must also contemplate the nature of our endeavor as an institution of higher learning and how this mission connects us with our nation and our world, our future and our past.

To that end, it’s interesting that, more than a year ago, many of our supervisors and directors attended a meeting where we held dialogue and small group discussion about the waning national perception of American higher education and what we can do at Washington University to counteract that metanarrative. We discussed the false perceptions that our American institutions no longer hold the same value they once did, that they do not provide a return on personal investment, that they are only available and accessible to the liberal elite, that they do not serve to benefit the wider community, and worse yet, that the humanities have no inherent value in today’s educational climate. 

Isn’t hindsight 2020 (pun intended)? During that meeting, none of us could have predicted we’d be where we are today. COVID-19 has served as the ultimate reinforcement for why residential university communities are important. This economic climate has also brought to the fore the empirical evidence that college graduates fare better in times of economic instability, as we learned during the Great Recession. Furthermore, this past election season, along with ongoing acts of injustice and threats to our democracy, have reminded us that we need to double down on our efforts to teach and model citizenship, civic leadership, and civic responsibility. We need to do a better job educating about differences, fostering dialogue across those differences, using history and the social sciences to reflect on our humanity. And we need to do a better job honing qualities of empathy, compassion, and civil discourse (rather than using electronic platforms to wedge deeper divides) that are far too lacking in our current climate. These are all values and qualities our humanities programs cultivate in students and graduates.    

In fact, following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, our interim dean and vice provost of graduate education Laurie Maffly-Kipp expressed just that. In a joint editorial appearing in Religion and Politics, which includes several voices from Washington University, Maffly-Kipp said:

“How are we to make sense of such events without some knowledge of history, critical thinking, and social movements? Or without the reasoning and rhetorical skills provided by philosophy and literature? How do we assess the puzzling mix of Nordic headdress, signs bearing the message ‘Jesus 2020,’ crosses, shofars, and ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirts without knowing something about both the recent and ancient past? It is those “softer” skills that help us explain, analyze, and (hopefully) work through dark social moments. These are languages that citizens of a democracy must learn.”

In addition to those qualities, this particular season has also brought to light the importance of cultivating other crucial skills — resilience and flexibility, superior communication skills, the ability to work in teams, the ability to manage tasks and time independently, and the determination to participate in a global and interconnected community. To that end, some colleagues may call these “soft” skills, and I challenge us to remove that descriptor so as not to diminish the importance of these qualities. To me, these are skills, plain and simple.  Skills we foster, not only in the classroom, but in the residence halls, on the court and in the field (under normal circumstances), through leadership development and student organizations, and more. These are the skills we all need at this very moment in history, and they are the skills employers look for in their top candidates.   

In fact, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employer’s annual Job Outlook survey of the top 10 skills employers seek from college graduates, skills such as strong interpersonal communication, the ability to work in teams, the ability to work in a diverse environment, and the ability to make decisions and solve problems consistently make the list year over year. In addition, a 2017 Harvard Business Review article titled “Liberal Arts in the Data Age” cited several thought leaders who believe the humanities are just as, if not more, valuable than vocational training. The author said, “From Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context—something humanities graduates happen to be well trained to do.”

Our role as a higher education institution is also important because of our research mission, as we aggressively discover solutions to these and other issues of greatest concern to our intersecting communities. Right now, Washington University, along with our peers, is leading the way on research and scholarship that is helping guide our current decisions as a nation and a world and charting our path forward. We have experts on the front lines of infectious diseases, clinical care, public health and social work, business and entrepreneurship, engineering, art and architecture, geography and history, and so much more. Because we must remember that this pandemic — along with the injustices so many members of our community face each day — these are not just health crises. They are economic crises. Education crises. Equity and inclusion crises. Geographic and historic crises. And legal and political crises. 

It’s clear. The times in which we’re living are indeed unprecedented. And that’s exactly why we need passionate, values-oriented, and skilled leaders in order to confront our current realities. At Washington University, we are uniquely positioned to prepare such leaders. 

So, while this past year has been painful to say the least, let’s use it as a reminder of the value of our higher education institutions and the crucial purpose we play in developing life-changing interventions and treatments, cultivating globally-minded leaders, and bringing to light the injustices happening in our communities and around the world. In that vein, we truly believe some of the world’s greatest innovations and breakthroughs are going to come out of this moment, as — out of sheer necessity and survival instincts — we are forced to think differently about the way we work with one another, care for one another, conduct business with one another, interact with one another, and live amongst one another. At Washington University, we are poised to help lead these innovations and breakthroughs in this most interesting and uncertain time. And we are ready to remind the world of the inherent and intrinsic value of our great institutions of higher education.