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Humanities poised for a resurgence

An aging Mark Twain once famously quipped that “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” A similar claim could be made about the fate of the humanities. Last spring, the liberal arts world was rattled by a one-two punch of high-profile reports—one by Harvard and one by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—that noted a dramatic decline in humanities majors nationwide. As the new dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Uta G. Poiger believes the humanities are poised to make a resurgence.

What message did you take away from the two reports?

Both reports affirm that the humanities matter—and not just to humanities majors. What we know from these reports, and other statistics, is that humanities majors do quite well in the job market and in obtaining leadership positions.

So, while students and parents have a lot of anxiety about obtaining specific job skills immediately, there is plenty of evidence they can get that training during their career and still thrive in highly specialized fields. We have several alumni in the financial services industry who say they later acquired specific skills, such as high-level statistics, but that their broad-based humanities education laid the foundation for their success. We also have alumni such as the former ambassador to Iraq, the archivist for the United States, and a senior editor at Money Magazine, who have stayed closer to their humanities roots. The perception that a major in the humanities puts a student on the path to unemployment is simply wrong.

What skills do humanities majors develop that make them attractive to employers?

Employers value written and oral communication skills as well as the research and reasoning skills our students develop (see the story on page 12). In the humanities, students learn to sift through information, interpret it from multiple perspectives, and make good judgments about the reliability of that information.

Understanding history and other cultures has become increasingly valuable in our global economy. At Northeastern, there is a strong commitment to a broad-based education. Professors in engineering or health sciences support a liberal arts education for all of our students—they do not want to see Northeastern become a vocational school.

Is there a change in the way humanities are being taught?

There’s much more emphasis on interdisciplinary instruction and collaborative research. Right now we’re developing a series of exciting new courses that will explore a single topic from a variety of disciplines within the same classroom. For example, we’re creating a course where the focus is “Love and Hate”—subjects that students find fascinating—which will be taught by professors in neuroscience, criminal justice, history, and literature. The goal is to expose students to a variety of approaches to a single topic. We’re planning to put these classes online to showcase our new teaching technologies as well.

At the same time, we have also established a prominent position in the digital humanities with the NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks, where faculty and students collaborate on projects like the digital archive of the Boston Marathon bombing. We continue to build on our commitment to experiential education through more research-oriented co-ops, faculty-student research collaborations, and innovative offerings such as the Dialogue of Civilizations programs, which were started here in the College of Social Sciences and the Humanities.

-By Bill Ibelle

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