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President's Perspective: Why We Value Humanities and Fine Arts at UW

October 7, 2013

By Robert J. Sternberg

The University of Wyoming is a land-grant institution. Land-grant institutions were originally created to provide a practical education. Their mission, as I see it, is to educate the ethical leaders who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world at some level.

So, why does the university have courses in the humanities and fine arts -- subjects like art and art history, dance, history, English, foreign languages, music and music history, philosophy and theater arts? Such courses might seem to some to be far afield of the practical education envisioned by the Morrill Act of 1862 -- the act of Congress that created land-grant universities. The reason we have such courses is that, at the University of Wyoming, we view education in the humanities and fine arts as eminently practical. There are three primary reasons.

Reading and Writing

All students who enter the university read, but not all of them read at a high level. Humanities courses emphasize reading complex texts. They can help students develop their reading-comprehension skills to the level required to read, with high comprehension, complex legal documents they will need to sign, complicated medical informed-consent forms, complex prospectuses that accompany investments such as in a retirement plan, or even certain books and periodicals.

Reading is not the only issue. Many of our students come to UW with less than high-level writing skills. Yet, most of them will need sophisticated writing skills once they enter the workforce, whether they go into business, law, medicine, agriculture, government, education or whatever. Humanities courses typically are the most writing-intensive courses in the university, with instructors putting special effort into improving students’ practical writing skills.

Critical, Creative, Practical and Wise Thinking

We not only want our students to comprehend what they read, but also to be able to analyze it. Humanities courses stress the development of critical-thinking skills, the skills needed to separate fact from opinion, truth from falsehood, and sense from nonsense. We want students to understand whether a drug or an operation really is likely to improve their health, whether a political pitch is logical or strictly emotional, and whether a product they are thinking of buying really is useful or is being promoted solely through hype.

Creative thinking is just as important as critical thinking. Humanities and fine-arts courses especially emphasize the development of creative thinking. The world is changing very rapidly. People who cannot think creatively simply cannot keep up with the changes in the environment. They are the ones who are always one step behind the competition -- whose businesses fail because they got themselves stuck providing products and services people no longer want, or who continue to invest their money in ways that once made sense but no longer do.

Practical thinking, or common sense, is crucial as well to real-world success.

Research has shown that standardized test scores, such as IQ and ACT scores, are distinct from common sense. The problems of life are nothing like standardized test items -- with highly structured, multiple-choice-test problems with clear right and wrong answers and five options from which to choose. Indeed, in real life, often no one even tells us what the problem is that we are facing -- we have to figure it out for ourselves. When people fail in business or personal relationships, it sometimes is not because they failed to solve a problem, but rather because they failed even to recognize they had a problem until it was too late.

Wisdom is the use of our knowledge and skills to help achieve a common good -- to look beyond our own selfish interests to serve others. The humanities are the repository of the wisdom of the past. By studying them, we learn how to think wisely and to avoid foolishness. Our society needs more leaders who are not only smart, but wise -- who not only talk a good game, but also get good things done.

Positive and Negative Role Models of Ethical Leadership

Future ethical leaders need role models, both positive and negative, of what to do and what not to do, respectively. We often acquire these role models through the study of history and related disciplines -- people who are like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, not like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Benito Mussolini. To become ethical leaders, we all can learn from the great successes and horrendous failures of history. There is an expression that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. By studying history, philosophy, literature and related disciplines, we can learn from the past and avoid making the mistakes of the past in the present and the future. Indeed, research shows that more successful people differ from less intelligent ones not in making fewer mistakes, but rather in learning from their mistakes.

Moreover, a study recently published in the journal Science has found that reading literary fiction increases emotional intelligence and social skills, important ingredients of successful leadership. The study therefore suggests that study of the humanities can help students, regardless of their academic major, become active citizens and leaders who are better able to serve their community, state and nation.

Land-grant institutions want to provide a practical education. Courses in the humanities and the fine arts help them do so. Most students will not major in the humanities and fine arts, but all students can profit from taking at least some courses in them.

Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming.

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