Saving the Liberal Art – A Columbia University Initiative – Developing Librarian


Many of us in a humanities class think, “This person has been dead for 2,000 years. All the people he wrote about are dead too. How this is even possibly relevant to my life?” Let us discuss why the humanities are relevant to everybody’s life. You study the humanities to become a better human. The Columbia University initiative, Developing Librarian insists on improving the enrolment of arts and humanities majors in college.

We each believe to our core, that the humanities are important. It is a point of concern to educators around the country that fewer students are majoring in the humanities, fewer than 10% now of all-American college students, in 1970, it was about 40%. All of my friends seemed to be studying either psychology or English or art history and biology, of course, and arts and sciences. That is still the case today, that the best foundational knowledge for anybody wanting to be a productive member of our society and our workforce is a fundamental major in the arts and the sciences. The outside world triggered and promoted many of our students, to take up a major in a profession. They come to the University at age 17 or 18 and they immediately go into tourism, business or journalism.

Those are great and valuable professions. However, my question is “why not start in history or in English or in language or in math?” You might ask, “What can I do with those?” The anything and everything as opposed to stove piping yourself at the age of 17. In Europe and France, for example, young people are stove-piped very early at that young age. In a university, when students are asked what they want to be when they grow up and they are immediately tracked right away into law or medicine or physics or something like that. However, we are beginning to lose that experimental quality of the freshman and sophomore year.

College is the place for experimentation. Take up many majors, even just because you enjoy them, because you are curious, or because you have always heard about that or have a friend who may have taken a great course and you would like to taste that as well. By junior year and then senior year, it is time to be focused. However, it is hard. The humanities allow us to reflect. They allow us to think deeply. They allow us to provide humor or parody if we need to, like the ancient Greeks and the ancient Greek comedies that were not merely for entertainment but were a reflection on the body politic at the time.

It is not just the entertainment side of it but also the truly critical and criticism side of what the humanities can bring. I also do not want us to be isolated from the other wonderful disciplines at university either, from engineering, mathematics, science, law, and medicine. They are vital to a university and to us. It is not only because it is the students who take, through requirements, the courses that many of you teach that we can keep the humanities afloat. More importantly, it is because they get the foundation in leadership and in culture. In all the disciplines that they study they would need and would never get anywhere else. This led to Columbia University contemplate an initiative, the Developing Librarian and the Break the Code program. We want the humanities to woven and interwoven through the fabric of everything we do. Nevertheless, there are times in society, where attention is being driven to every other domain, every other corner, other professional disciplines that we think, need an initiative that would be multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary. While there are multitudes of reasons to study the humanities, we will analyze four reasons. These four are workplace skills, life skills, global perspectives and being able to see the beauty and the history of human achievement.

Workplace skills

There are certain things that employers want from employees. The most important of these are critical thinking, communication, numeracy, and literacy skills. Since all of us live in this society where we talk about the Socratic tradition a lot we all automatically think that we are heirs to the Socratic tradition. However, it takes a lot of work to learn how to think and one of the most effective ways to learn how to think is through a lot of reading and writing. There’s a book called academically adrift by Arum and Rosca, where they cite a study that says the people who make the greatest gains in critical thinking are those who read at least 50 pages a week and write 20 pages, over the course of the semester. That sounds like a lot. However, looking at the text, reacting to the text, summarizing and communicating about it is what hones critical thinking skills.

Figure 1: Employee Expectations and Fulfillment of Workplace Skills

Critical thinking is essential in the workplace. Almost every technical skill you learn in college is probably going to be obsolete in five years. However, those literacy skills and critical thinking skills are going to last for the rest of your life. When you are in the workplace your boss is probably going to say “here’s this project I need for you to get it done.” but there will be no guidance or instructions like step A, step B and step C. you have to figure out the steps yourself. Critical thinking involves knowing to ask the right questions, knowing what information is not there and understanding that you have to supply the missing information to a situation. This is something you will have to do in the workplace to be successful.

Life skills

Individuals who study music have greater cognitive gains at the beginning of their life and at the end of their life. People who study music stave off dementia longer than others do. Those who study foreign language get the same benefits as those who study music. People who sing in choirs have additional benefits of lower blood pressure and reported a higher sense of happiness because they are a part of a community. Students who study politics and economics engage in civics at increased rates. Graduates in drama have better social skills because they can adopt personas for whichever situation they are involved. Literature students have increased levels of empathy.

Global perspectives

We have huge global problems like starvation, pollution and climate change. We have gross inequity all over the planet. The only way we are going to be able to solve these issues is as a planet. However, sometimes when we look at cultures that are different from ours, we think of how we are ever going to work together. We see each other as different instead of equals. The way that we get access to people’s culture is by studying their humanities. For example, China is one of the rising global powers whom we are going to have to collaborate with to achieve.

However, when we are talking to individual Chinese people and they tend to maintain a still face. We think this person is not interested in what I have to say or that this person thinks he is better than I am. The conclusion is we cannot work together. However, we need to read the literature of China understands why Chinese often have still faced. Chinese culture is a Confucian culture based on the fact that the community is more important than the individual is. If you are showing emotions, you are potentially bringing disharmony to the community. Therefore, you keep your emotional labor private to make sure that the community is the most harmonious as possible. Once we understand that we understand that a still face is not necessarily an indication of hatred or disinterest. It is just a cultural difference so this quote by Confucius “the wise man is full yet seeming empty offended against yet never contesting” makes a lot of sense. All we have to do is understand that to become partners and feel like we are equals.

Beauty and history of human achievement

Many times when we think about history, we think about war, genocide, technological advances in weaponry. However, we need to think about the other things too, about the collective knowledge that humanity has amassed. Art starts out as a person putting his hand against a cave wall and then blowing ink all around it. It keeps progressing to the art that we see now. We can see the technological advances that changed art; think about how farther our collective knowledge has come since. This is true as well in terms of music, literature, and all humanities. If we forget all of this collective knowledge then we have to start at a point from the cave and we do not have time for that. We have big problems to solve. We have to take advantage of the collective knowledge as it is now. The understanding of the beauty, the sense that it takes to achieve it and the amount of effort and wherewithal it takes to visualize and create the artistic, architectural marvels, I think, it is the true greatness of humanity in itself.

We need to study the humanities, history, anthropology, art, music, and literature to understand the dreams and the manner in which humankind has recorded these dreams for us. To create, we need to understand. To make, we need to study. We cannot imagine a world with no art, music, and literature. This beauty is the balancing factor that makes it worth pursuing the growth of humankind amidst all the chaos destruction that has come along our long and blood-soaked history. The Developing Librarian Project at the University of Colorado is geared towards increasing the number of learned graduates experiencing the beauty and the benefits of learning humanities.



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