The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Harpham, the humanities, and the Dream of America

Geoffrey Galt Harpham is the president of the National Humanities Center, the only institute in the world exclusively devoted to advanced study of humanities. Harpham encourages initiatives that advocate for humanities to be more integrated in the sciences. His latest book is called “The Humanities and the Dream of America.” This Tuesday in JRC 101, Harpham gave a talk entitled “From Eternity to Here: Shrinkage in American Thinking about Higher Education.” The S&B’s Liz Jang ’14 sat down with Harpham on Wednesday morning.

Geoffrey Harpham. President of the National HUmanities Center, spoke in JRC 101 in TUesday. Photograph by Emma Sinai-Yunker.

Do you think education in America is more idealistic in comparison to education in other countries?
American education has been highly idealistic, and it’s been connected to a sense of national purpose and social cohesion. I think we’ve lost a good deal of that in the recent years. Other countries are beginning to pick up on this idealistic conception of education, not because they’re so idealistic, but because they see the great results that are produced by liberal education. [At the lecture], I was talking about an experience I had a couple of years ago, where a Danish researcher was talking about how the American system is really excellent at producing educational results as well as strengthening society. He was talking in very idealistic terms about what the American system was: it builds character, as well as produces knowledge. It’s hard to hear those phrases uttered in America anymore, because it seems like we’ve lost faith in our own system. And places like Grinnell and other liberal arts colleges are those that have not lost faith in their own system. So they are actually quite precious, and have to be strengthened. 

What do you mean by “lost faith in our system”?
There is increasing drive for efficiency, to vocational training, to corporatization (committing private interest to gain a certain kind of ownership over university policy and curriculum). There is a sense that the results of education should be measureable in the short term. Of course, the humanities [don’t] look good, because it’s hard to measure their effects in the short term. You can measure whether somebody has learned economics by giving them an economics test. But you can’t really test if somebody has learned to appreciate great works of art or literature in the same way. So the drive to reduce everything to something accessible … to something measureable … has the effect of diminishing the importance and the value of humanities.

Do you think we attempt to measure this type of learning through standardized testing, though?
Yes. Yes, I do. I think there are a great many other studies that have shown that standardized tests might be a good predictor of GPA, but they’re not necessarily a good predictor of larger success in life. And I think that one function of higher education is to inculcate in people a sense of citizenship in society, … of citizenship of the world, that they are, of course, human beings. They are not just employees. They are not just trained people who are equipped to do one job, but they are human beings with a kind of larger horizon than their job could provide them. That’s what liberal education has traditionally provided. And I think it’s worked very well for this country. At the time when liberal education was strongest, say 1950 to 1975 or ’80…that’s referred to as the Golden Age in American higher education … the results were very impressive and compelling to the rest of the world. The weakening over the last decade of the idea of liberal education, of the paradigm of higher education in general, our results have been less impressive. The rest of the world has caught up to us or surpassed us, in some ways. I think what we need to do is to return to the idea of liberal education. Update it, modernize it, make it “21st century,” to be sure. But keep the idea that students learn best when they learn a diverse array of subjects, and that they study those subjects for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of their first job. 

During your lecture, you referenced James Bryant Conant’s quote: “The aim of education is mastery of life; and since living is an art, wisdom is the indispensable means to this end.” As a liberal arts student, this resonates with how I view education. However, as an undergraduate student, I just wanted to ask you: What happens after you leave college, after you go into the “real world” and get a job?
Well, when liberal education was at its peak, we had very low unemployment. The economy was booming. The United States was the unquestioned economic leader of the world. I think that the move to make education less liberal, more instrumental, more vocational, is not the way to solve our problems. It’s the way to aggravate them. People who graduate are gong to change their jobs maybe half a dozen times in the course of their working life. If their education has given them training for their first job, and nothing else, it has not prepared them well for the changes they will have to go through.
What you really need is not only the skills that you require on your first job, but the mental adaptability. You need some kind of larger sense of purpose or vision. That’s what you get with a liberal education … So while an accounting degree might get you the job as an accountant, it kind of sticks you there. If you’re unable to think in humanistic terms, you’re probably not going to get that top job. Your imagination won’t be prepared for it. You’re not used to thinking in larger, more spacious terms. I think if what you want is to go into business, you can take a one- or two-year course on business after you graduate and that will give you everything you need. But a liberal education is better if what you want is to rise through the ranks.

What do you think the purpose of education should be?
The purpose of education is to strengthen your understanding of the world around you, to expand your imagination, to increase your sympathetic understand of people who are distant from you in time and in place and in general equip you to think in a powerful and critical way.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *