[Outlook]Humanities 101

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[Outlook]Humanities 101

These days, it seems that humanities education is in steep decline. Since the financial crisis of the late 1990s, the government has implemented policies to change college education to make it more suitable to the demands of society than to the traditional faculties of universities. Students have thus come to focus on those practical courses needed to get a job.
As a result, liberal arts studies, the subject of which is really the human condition and the meaning of life, are on the verge of losing their place in the academy.
In modern society, universities are no longer places where scholar-monks dwell in isolation to think great thoughts and study at their leisure. Instead, they are laboratories for innovation and practical solutions that benefit the broader human community. Thus, universities cannot exist removed from the society they serve.
But universities are not merely vocational training institutes where students are taught job-related tasks. Universities must also be centers for education that provide the knowledge needed to nurture students to become mature citizens.
When considering this, if the humanities, which are at the very core of universities, are abandoned; society itself will be the loser. The humanities are indispensable to human awareness. Abandon them and we risk losing the light of wisdom needed to guide us into the future. Education in the liberal arts is one of the most unique assets in the university curriculum because it fosters contemplation of the world we live in. The humanities may not be strictly helpful in training people for an industrial society; they do not create visible wealth. However, humanitarian studies allow the young to develop mature personalities and the imagination to create a better world.
According to John Henry Newman, the author of “The Idea of a University,” all the ramifications of knowledge are connected to one another; the humanities help us to understand the social context of science and other practical studies.
For instance, Johannes Kepler adopted the Greek philosopher Plato’s hypothesis about his imaginary five regular solids in the universe when he discovered how the Earth and planets orbit around the sun.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was a scholar of classical literature before he became a physicist.
When we learn about and study literature, which is at the core of the humanities, we discover abundant experiences and gain insights that allow us to understand and read people’s feelings at a given time. Based on these insights, we can develop the intellectual power to discuss complex subjects with an appreciation of their place in the world.
If universities lose their core beliefs by hurriedly responding to students’ immature demands for immediate gratification, they risk losing the balance between the different disciplines needed for full knowledge. Universities must not tarnish their role as centers of learning and become mere private training centers.
That would in effect tear down the ivory tower and eliminate the ability to realize ideals, placing our society in chaos.
Recently, Harvard University designated eight disciplines, most within the humanities, as mandatory core courses for all students. That distinguished university has designated so many subjects ― and the strict study regimen that comes with them ― because college education is not only about helping students get a good job. The university has made a decision to enhance liberal studies because students need broad knowledge.
In Korea, if our society encourages practical studies at the expense of other fields and lets the humanities wither and gradually disappear, a short-term goal may be achieved.
But in the long run, it would be the same as digging a grave for our future.

*The writer is a professor emeritus at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Tae-dong
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