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Archive for Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Humanities also important

January 25, 2006

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These are worrying times for many who teach in the humanities at Kansas University. Many of these faculty are concerned that as KU's successes in the sciences increase there will soon be two classes of faculty: the scientific "haves" and the humanistic "have-nots." This is a situation that should not be permitted.

Certainly, science and technology at KU have seen many successes in the past decade. KU now has two national science and technology centers funded by the National Science Foundation: the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis headed by professor Bala Subramaniam and the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets headed by professors Prasad Gogineni and David Braaten.

Professor Gunda Georg recently received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health to support her cancer-related research. The work of Georg and others has given a strong push to the university's move to be designated a national cancer research center. Many other science and engineering faculty also have been successful in their research activities leading to increased funding for the university.

This said, there is also danger in such success. It is very tempting to judge academic success by dollars brought into the university. Unfortunately, humanists - those who work in the languages, history, philosophy and all those subjects that deal with the nonscientific aspects of the human experience - rarely bring in multimillion dollar grants and, therefore, it is easy for administrators and legislators to see their efforts as less important and successful than those of the scientists and engineers.

As important as science and engineering are to the modern world, they cannot be the sole focus of a great university like KU. Our mission of teaching, research and service requires that we excel not only in the sciences and technology but also in the humanities and social sciences. Academic excellence cannot be measured purely in terms of external funding or research expenditures.

Our mission as a university must also encompass those subjects that enrich our souls if not our wallets. We cannot simply educate technicians; we must also educate poets, historians, philosophers and business men and women. We need to cultivate the humanities at KU and make sure that all of our students have been exposed to languages, literature, art, history, philosophy and religion, even those who plan to be scientists and engineers.

As to research, we must recognize that a great poet or novelist contributes massively to the common good. As to languages, can anyone after 9-11 possibly believe that Americans don't need to learn languages other than English? As for history, how can we understand the present without understanding the past? And, of course, all the other humanities and social sciences have equally good reasons for being given support.

As KU enters the 21st century it is, in my opinion, crucial that we not forget the importance of nonfunded research. We must not forget those who study literature or languages, history or art, education or business, even if they never produce one dollar in measurable revenues to the university. We must remember that the university and the state and nation are enriched in many ways and money is only one of those.

I would hate to think we might someday be a university without poets or artists or those who devote their lives to the study of humanity. To me a university without the humanities is no university at all.

Mike Hoeflich, a professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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