Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Former House rep makes the case for the humanities

Heather Wilson, who represented New Mexico in the U.S. House for about a decade, reports on her experiences as an evaluator of Rhodes Scholar applicants. Without quite saying it, she makes a powerful case for the humanities. A lengthy quote below the fold...

I have, however, become increasingly concerned in recent years - not about the talent of the applicants but about the education American universities are providing. Even from America's great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago.

As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.
Unlike many graduate fellowships, the Rhodes seeks leaders who will "fight the world's fight." They must be more than mere bookworms. We are looking for students who wonder, students who are reading widely, students of passion who are driven to make a difference in the lives of those around them and in the broader world through enlightened and effective leadership. The undergraduate education they are receiving seems less and less suited to that purpose.

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president's health-care bill but doesn't really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn't really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn't seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn't seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America's Constitution.
When asked what are the important things for a leader to be able to do, one young applicant described some techniques and personal characteristics to manage a group and get a job done. Nowhere in her answer did she give any hint of understanding that leaders decide what job should be done. Leaders set agendas. 
Well said, Representative Wilson, well said.


  1. Do you have a cite or a link?


  2. Anon,

    Here you are:

  3. Worst Prof Ever on Wilson's article:

    Some tidbits from Worst Prof:
    "Wilson’s conclusion is pretty lame, resting merely on the tired supposition that ‘universities are failing our students.’

    If one of my students had written that, I’d have failed them for clichés, vagueness, and a poorly supported argument. Granted, that’s exactly what most students would have written, which is why I’d say the real problem is them — the students, failing us. Not vice-versa."

    "I’d also point out that Wilson’s putative Rhodes candidates all come from non-humanities backgrounds, which is another reason they can’t think very well. Why can’t a biochem major discuss the current issues surrounding the health bill? Easy, because the biochem department brings in bazillions of dollars in grants and can do whatever it wants in its own little mad-scientist world. Meanwhile, the humanities, which excel at teaching ‘big-picture’ thinking, are scraping by with their few burlap-clad students in the basement of the library – and we all know how awkward things get between social classes. Better to keep them separate, don’t you think?"


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