The humanities are essential for the health of American civic life. Yet on many campuses of higher education, the humanities have been languishing, with declining numbers of students choosing to major in the humanities, declining enrollments by non-majors in many humanities courses, and widespread demoralization of humanities faculty.
The future vitality of the humanities will depend largely on what happens in general education, the prescribed portion of a student’s work that falls outside their chosen major. General education is the place in the undergraduate curriculum where students, who now overwhelmingly pursue pre-professional areas of study, should engage with challenging and inspiring works of literature, art, and philosophy—works that raise the sort of questions they are otherwise unlikely to encounter in their undergraduate career, and at a moment in their lives when they are open to confronting humanistic questions as part of their education.
General education should give students an opportunity to broaden their understanding of the world and themselves, while strengthening the skills to read closely, write clearly, speak with confidence, and contend with differing viewpoints and perspectives—all capacities cultivated by the humanities that are crucial for the “participatory readiness” of citizen-leaders of our democracy.
At many institutions, the impersonal and incoherent character of general education, typically structured around distribution requirements, minimizes opportunities for genuine engagement with deep and difficult questions raised by the humanities: about the role of government; the power of words and symbols; the burden of our history for people of color, the responsibility of individuals for the welfare of others; the problem of ambiguity even in the realm of science—to name just a few.
Further, such an approach to general education encourages a “check the box” attitude that undermines the value proposition of staying in college, particularly for low-income and first-generation students who face pressure to enter the workforce prematurely. A serious effort to make general education more coherent and attentive to student concerns is needed to reduce attrition, which often occurs after the first year of college when students have typically encountered a “grab bag” of disconnected introductory coursework. The humanities are essential for redesigning general education so that students of all backgrounds may see the salience of their coursework for the issues and questions they care about and how domains of knowledge are interconnected—as are the problems they will be tackling in the real world—all while building skills in communication and critical analysis that are prized in the workplace and beyond.
Worse, the disconnected, incoherent, and chaotic approach to general education that too often prevails on college campuses is a missed opportunity to build community and connection in an era characterized by isolation and political polarization. Students in college today report dramatically high levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Improving the transition to college so that young people can more readily cultivate relationships with their peers and their professors should be a priority at all institutions. To this end, engagement with a common set of readings in their first year provides students with a sense of shared purpose and frame of reference to connect with one another inside and outside the classroom. Such a first-year curriculum that features at least some common elements also harnesses diversity in all its forms—by race, immigration status, sexual identity, and other forms of difference—to strengthen learning in the classroom as students of varying backgrounds grapple together with common issues through shared readings, listen to their peers, and come to see that there can be no singular response to big human questions.
The Cornerstone: Learning for Living initiative is inspired by a successful program model developed at Purdue University, which has helped students in pre-professional majors strengthen critical thinking and communication skills, reversed the decline in credit hours at Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts, and raised morale and teaching opportunities for humanities faculty.
Students who embark on the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts (CILA) certificate program take a two-semester “Transformative Texts” sequence in their first year under the mentorship of tenure-track faculty. At least half the reading assignments in all sections of this sequence are drawn from a faculty-created and continually revised list of roughly 200 major works—with a resulting degree of commonality that helps create a sense of belonging and intellectual community for students while also allowing faculty the freedom to design syllabi aligned with their own interests.
Students subsequently take thematically organized clusters of courses that complement the technical course load typically required of STEM and other pre-professional majors, who dominate undergraduate enrollments at many institutions. Most CILA courses satisfy existing general education distribution requirements and represent no detour from the path to timely graduation, a particular concern for students in highly prescribed degree programs. The program model is also flexible enough to meet the practical challenge of serving a significant share of the undergraduate student body.
Two curricular components of the Cornerstone program model are especially notable. First, gateway courses aimed at incoming students that are anchored in a common set of transformative texts help build intellectual community among students as well as faculty through a common learning and teaching experience. Studying such texts—whether ancient or modern—that have transformed the world and that continue to have the power to transform individual lives under the mentorship of faculty gives students a strong start to their time in college. Gateway courses anchored in consensus lists of such texts help counter the centrifugal forces that can make the college experience feel desultory and disconnected. Such courses create a framework that allows students to make better-informed curricular decisions as they proceed through college, and provide a repository of skills and perspectives on which they draw throughout their formal education and beyond.
Second, thematically organized clusters of courses that bring humanistic inquiry to problems in business, health, engineering, and other technical fields help students appreciate that technical problems cannot be addressed exclusively through technical solutions. Such clusters also provide a purposeful and coherent path rather than a menu of unrelated options for completing the general education requirements. Engagement with the humanities inspires students to reflect on their values, instills a love of learning, and enriches their lives.
 American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2013). The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/publication/downloads/hss_report.pdf