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The role of the humanities in a Grinnell education

What should the role of the humanities be in a Grinnell education? That’s easy. The humanities should be front and center in a liberal arts education. But I’ve recently found myself trying to convince some advisees that they need more humanities in their schedule. I focused primarily on what I think of as the core Humanities disciplines: Classics, English, Philosophy, and Religious Studies [1]. To help with my arguments, I went back to the College Catalog’s statement on the key elements of a liberal arts education [2].

I claimed that it failed to provide an adequate argument. But maybe I was misreading it. Let me try again. It appears that the faculty articulated six areas of study. Let’s consider each in turn and see whether it requires one of those disciplines. We’ll then hear from a student who wants to avoid taking anything outside of their core division.

1. Nothing enhances the expression of knowledge better than engaging, clear, and accurate language. Reading closely, thinking clearly, and writing effectively form a web of connected skills, whether practiced in the First-Year Tutorial, in the Writing Lab, in designated writing courses, or in courses ranging from the introductory to the advanced level in almost every discipline. Students planning their academic programs should strive for the ability to convey their ideas with power and grace, to analyze and formulate arguments, and to adapt each piece of writing to its context and audience. [3]

Tutorial is not enough. But my students can claim I did a lot of close reading and careful writing my social science class. The CS/Econ majors certainly do so in their econ seminars. And we’re increasingly asked to be covering close reading and careful writing across the curriculum. Hence, although this element might encourage students to take a core humanistic discipline, it does not appear to require it.

2. Study of a language other than one’s own opens the mind to new ways of thinking. Language placement tests are offered during New Student Orientation, and students are asked to determine their appropriate level at that time. Many Grinnell College faculty members urge their advisees to study a nonnative language and its literature, not only for the exposure to a rich alternative world of cultural meanings, but also to gain a valuable perspective (unavailable to the monolingual person) on the workings of language itself. For careful planning, students should note that many off-campus study opportunities, the Alternative Language Study Option, certain academic majors, and many types of postgraduate study require specific levels of demonstrated ability in foreign languages.

I agree that language study is useful. As one colleague notes, it can even be life-changing. But it doesn’t help me argue with a student that they should take Philosophy, Religious Studies, English, or Classics. I guess I could use this element to argue for Latin or Greek. I could also use this element to argue for English for some of our international students. But I don’t think it provides a cohesive argument for those four disciplines.

3. An education in the natural sciences—biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology—introduces techniques of observation and experimentation, the relation of data to hypotheses, and the practice of scientific reasoning. This work trains the mind to relate concrete empirical information to abstract models, stimulating multidimensional and creative habits of thought. Sustained experience in the laboratory and a grasp of basic scientific principles lead to a better understanding of commonly observed phenomena. Non-specialists who are scientifically literate bring valuable understanding to public discourse and to an increasing number of professional settings.

I like that Grinnell includes psychology in the natural sciences. And I think our students should make sure their education includes exposure to the scientific method. But this doesn’t argue for the humanities. On to the next one.

4. Quantitative reasoning, with emphasis on mathematical models and methods above the secondary-school level, aids in the expression of hypotheses, processes, and theoretical relations. A course in statistics can be helpful for all students, and particularly for those who might work in the social and behavioral sciences. Studies in computer science offer valuable exposure to principles of logic and problem-solving paradigms.

I think a course in statistics is useful for all students because you can’t be a citizen of the 21st century without some ability to interpret data or the charts and graphs that appear regularly in the news. But this paragraph doesn’t tell people to take humanistic disciplines to get those skills. It’s also surprisingly disjoint. On to the next category.

5. The study of human behavior and society leads students to investigate their own identities and to gain insight into social categories and relations. Faculty advisers often urge students to take a sustained look at the history of a specific society, and also to examine a contemporary society (or a segment of it) that is unfamiliar. In light of these encounters, students learn to make and evaluate their own political and ethical choices. Whether a student explores anthropology, economics, education, history, philosophy, political science, religious studies, sociology, or interdisciplinary studies, this question will lie near the heart of the inquiry: in what ways have people lived together, and how should they live together?

Things are a bit better in this paragraph. It even includes two of the disciplines I was considering: philosophy and religious studies. But it also suggests that one can easily achieve this goal by taking only social sciences. I really think that you understand human behavior and society much differently when you study them through a humanistic lens than when you study them through a social scientific lens. Should we perhaps break this element into two separate elements?

6. Students enlarge their understanding of the liberal arts through the study of creative expression. In the analysis of creative works, whether through historical survey of forms, aesthetic theory, or interpretive practice, the arts occupy the foreground, though knowledge of history and society may inform the analysis. In this way, courses in literature, music, theatre, dance, and the visual arts complement studies in anthropology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and other fields. Students also benefit from learning, through direct instruction in artistic or literary technique, the intense discipline of art and its interplay between conscious intent and unconscious design.

Another valuable area. It’s even generally in the humanities. However, with the exception of literature, does not really cover the core disciplines. It even explicitly separates itself from two of them. I’m not sure why those are the disciplines that we think the arts complement. For example, I think the arts clearly complement study of the sciences.

Now, let’s take as our example an uncooperative Economics major who is not a native English speaker and who has taken almost exclusively social science courses, along with music lessons and two lab sciences.

  1. I do a lot of reading and writing in all of my social science courses. I’m writing a long research paper in my Econ seminar.

  2. English is not my native language. I am already being exposed to a different culture.

  3. I took two lab sciences.

  4. You can’t do economics without some understanding of quantitative reasoning. I even took Econometrics.

  5. Ive taken Economics. It’s listed explicitly in this category."

  6. I’ve taken music lessons.

See, I have all the elements of a liberal arts education.

What in the Elements of a Liberal Arts narrative helps me convince this student that they are missing a significant portion of their liberal arts education? Is it just so obvious that we never put it in words?

Other than asking Why did you come to Grinnell?, what would you tell my hypothetical student to help convince them that they need to broaden their education?

Part of the problem is that I don’t think one or two courses is enough. I think every student needs to study literature, either through English, Classics, or a non-native language. I also think every student should study either Philosophy [4] or Religious Studies. But how do I make that more than one from column a and one from column b? More generally, I’m puzzled as to why a student wouldn’t think these disciplines were core to their education.

I need something new to say to them. Perhaps something like Understanding the human condition is core to a liberal arts education. And you must understand the human condition in multiple ways. The study of literature reveals one aspect. Reading scholars who have carefully reflected on that condition reveals a second. And considering that condition in relation to society, using the tools of a social scientist, reveals a third.

’Eh. Needs work. Fortunately, no one will ever ask me to rewrite the Catalog.


I received a few follow-up comments from colleagues and friends [6]. In this section, I attempt to summarize their explict and implicit suggestions.

  • The humanities have the potential to be life-changing. Certainly. I recall that Martha Nussbaum makes this argument in Cultivating Humanity.

[1] I’m not sure whether or not to include History in this list. I think I’ll stick with the Grinnell Classification System and leave it in the Social Sciences, even though it may be more like some of the humanities.

[2] If that link doesn’t work, try searching the Web for Grinnell and Elements of a Liberal Education.

[3] This quoted paragraph, and each of the other five, are taken from the College catalog. Grinnell College is officially the author of the text in the catalog.

[4] Symbolic Logic does not count.

[5] Every colleague who responded is also a friend, so I’m not sure that I need to make that distinction.

Version 1.1 of 2017-11-11.