Interdisciplinary studies will be the saving grace of the humanities


The University of Texas sits at a delicate crossroads. With fallout from UT Law School investigation, debate over raising tuition costs, and a 4-year graduation rate hovering around 53 percent, the school has got plenty of issues on its plate.

Perhaps that is why the crisis in the humanities has been chronically overlooked.

In times of economic downturn, justifying a degree in philosophy or political science becomes harder for students who have to pay back loans with high interest rates. The desire for a measurable return-on-investment often wins out over the desire for a deeper understanding of the human condition, especially when a degree in engineering has a starting salary 45 percent higher than a degree in the humanities. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which collects this information, found that in 2011 research expenditures in the humanities reached $1 billion, or about one-twelfth of engineering research expenditures.

Whether it’s business, science, or math, students are flocking to STEM subjects that promise post-graduation visibility in the job market and a steady paycheck later on down the road. But does this mean that the discourses of Plato should get the boot in places of higher learning?

Louis Menand, a writer for the The New Yorker magazine and a professor of English at Harvard University, doesn’t think so.

Speaking in front of Plan II students and faculty last Thursday, Menand discussed how interdisciplinary studies are part of the solution for the troubled humanities. What university educators need to think about is not preparing students to become tools in a drawer, but to become the drawer itself. A student increases his or her net worth to employers by not only having medical research skills, but also persuasive writing experience and a historical knowledge of medical ethics.

With the commitment of philanthropists Michael and Susan Dell to help fund UT’s spiffy new medical school, perhaps there is hope of revitalizing an interest in the humanities on the Forty Acres. The new medical center, which is expected to create 15,000 jobs in Austin when it is opened in 2016, presents an opportunity to bridge the gap between STEM subjects and liberal arts. At a number of university medical schools across the country, programs in the medical humanities allow students to simultaneously explore the pragmatic application of science and literature to solve the world’s biggest public health concerns.

Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist who also spoke on campus last week, exemplifies how the combined knowledge of medicine and cultures can bring about a greater change in society at large. As a co-founder of Partners In Health, Farmer has successfully implemented 12 health clinics around the globe without uprooting the cultures and religions on which the communities stand.