A young Catherine Jones first became interested in history when she came across a dirt-filled swimming pool in her small southern town.
“To an eight-year-old on a hot summer day in southwestern Virginia, that seemed like a travesty,” Jones said in an email. “When I asked why, I began to learn about the history of segregation, the struggle to end it, the resistance of whites who would rather close a pool than see black and white children swim together. History began to feel indispensable in trying to understand why puzzling things are the way they are.”
Jones, as the UC Santa Cruz program director for history undergraduates, professor in the humanities division and researcher focusing on slavery in America, now uses history to untangle the “knottiest problems the world throws [her] way.”
While she feels her choice to study and work in the humanities has been indispensable, the decreasing numbers of humanities students nationwide reflects the push toward the monetary promises of degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
UCSC has seen a sliding number of bachelor degrees in the humanities in recent years. In 2011-12, 792 undergraduates received humanities degrees. But in 2013-14 that number dropped to 574.
“Many of our students will graduate saddled with school loans. How will we persuade them to select a humanities major when there is no indication that the U.S. or even the world economy will anytime soon have the sort of capacity to employ them?” said Dr. Anuradha Luther Maitra to a theater full of hundreds of humanities scholars and students last Thursday.
The 15th annual lecture, this year titled “Wicked Problems: Humanities in the Time of STEM,” was in honor of Luther Maitra’s late husband, Siddhartha Maitra. During the event’s kick-off, Chancellor George Blumenthal described him as a “technologist with a deep appreciation of the humanities.”
“Sometimes humanities can get lost in our high-technology obsessed society,” Blumenthal said, “but really more important than ever, especially in our high-technology society, humanities are something that we have to consider. I’m delighted to tell you that the humanities are alive and well at UC Santa Cruz.”
Luther Maitra introduced Dr. William D. Adams, the presidentially-appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), who aimed to answer the massive question Luther Maitra posed.
Completing his doctorate in the history of consciousness at UCSC, Adams feels pride in the university’s founding mission to be a liberal educational space. NEH was formed a year after UCSC, and both reflect on the time period that gave birth to these two cultural spaces.
“As Clark Kerr and Dean McHenry did in the early 1960s, we have to place liberal learning at the forefront of our discussions about the basic purposes of education,” Adams said.
Adams suggested that while this idealistic vision has merit and should be pursued, it was a limited vision that has become more inclusive in recent years by strengthening female and racially underrepresented voices.
While humanities degrees are generally decreasing, humanities bachelor’s degrees for traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups have risen nearly a quarter from 1995 to 2000, according to Humanities Indicators.
However, there is still work to be done.
“Some of that elitism continues to cling to social perception of the liberal arts in the United States,” Adams said. “We need then to seek a more democratic view and expression of liberal learning that focuses on citizenship and the diverse capacities required to be an engaged and informed member of democratic society.”
NEH strives toward that expression by awarding grants to research in the field of humanities. In their second round of grant giving of 2015, the agency announced that it would give $22.8 million for 232 projects, making it one of the largest groups to fund humanities projects in the country.
Days before the talk, the NEH also awarded four grants totaling $169,817 to faculty research projects and the UCSC Dickens Project.
“It’s about supporting particular projects that otherwise might not see the light of day, about letting people do important work that can benefit society,” said Peter Limbrick, one of the three faculty to earn a grant, in an email. The NEH grant will allow Limbrick to take a year off to write a book on a prominent Moroccan filmmaker and bring Arab films into a larger conversation about cinema and the world.
“There are multiple ways in which we can talk about the professional relevance of the humanities […] it begins with certain fundamental intellectual capacities, communication, thinking, writing, reading all those deep humanities capabilities that the humanities nurture and are hugely relevant in professional settings,” Adams said. “But education is not just about work preparation.”