Verbum Ultimum: Honoring the Humanities

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/9/14 9:07pm

Yesterday the College announced that Carolyn Dever, dean of Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Science, would serve as its new provost, citing her expertise in the humanities. Dever is a professor in English and women’s and gender studies, and the decision to place her at the helm publicly reaffirms the College’s commitment to the humanities.

Dever’s intellectual background provides her with an acute understanding of the humanities disciplines — which is particularly important at a small research university with a history of commitment to the liberal arts. She provides a key counterbalance to College President Phil Hanlon, whose area of expertise is in mathematics. At a time when interest and participation in humanities fields has declined notably, Dever’s appointment sends a strong message that the College has not abandoned the humanities.

At Dartmouth, the percentage of completed majors in the humanities has declined, from 24 percent in the academic year 2003-04 to a mere 17 percent in 2012-13. The number of English majors in 2012-13 was just 54, compared to the 94 in 2001-02. These numbers reflect a trend of decreased interest in intellectual exploration for its own sake. Students choose subjects that they believe will guarantee economic security. Thosewho might have majored in the humanities 10 years ago instead opt for majors that seem more practical or hirable.

The numbers at Dartmouth reflect a nationwide trend. Fewer students each year are interested in the humanities. Economic pressures that force many students out of the humanities disciplines certainly exist, but there are other considerations for choosing an academic path, like a genuine interest and passion for a subject that extends beyond practical concerns. The humanities, more so than ever, merit the administration’s attention.

The debate over the continued relevancy of the humanities often places the humanities and STEM subjects in opposition to each other. College administrators and academics should strive to explore the possibility for harmony or collaboration between the two. Dever and Hanlon’s complementary academic backgrounds reflect just this, reaffirming the College’s identity of a research institution with liberal arts at its core.

The College of course has top-notch programs in the humanities that feature foreign study programs and high-level seminars. But in public discourse, Hanlon’s focus so far has been on practicality, specifically with his emphasis on experiential learning and entrepreneurship. Dever’s appointment is a public endorsement of balance, and at an institution like Dartmouth, this balance is crucial.

Overall, the College’s decision to appoint Dever to such a high position comes as a public reassurance that the humanities will remain an institutional priority. We look forward to the Dever-Hanlon partnership.

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