Want to Assess the Importance and Value of a Humanities Education? Ask your Students

The humanities, it is constantly said, are in free fall and notable only for their dramatic decline and the unremitting “crisis” confronting them. This crisis may be more apparent than real however, as the UMHumanities blog and others have discussed; or if it is real it is because references to this “crisis” have been so common and insistent that cumulatively they have conjured it into being. It is, in other words, a manufactured or ginned-up crisis.

Of course, that is only one side of it. The humanities are certainly not without their champions, and as the swelling body of literature defending the importance and value of the humanities so clearly attests, there are many reasons to study the Humanities and Social Science disciplines, from the practical to the personal. A strong economic argument can be made for their value and relevance, and this drastically underappreciated reality will hopefully become a subject of future discussion among our community. Far more familiar are the arguments stressing how the humanities cultivate the imagination and personal development, contribute to individual and collective happiness and well-being, and educate thoughtful, engaged “citizens” of the world.

Though generally commendable, appropriate and accurate when voiced by the professoriate such defences can unfortunately ring a little flat and sound indulgent and out-of-touch, like so much pious nostalgia. Opinions about education often sound a lot like opinions about pop music, at least in so far as both tend to insist it was better back in the day. Perhaps this explains why so few of even the best and most compelling defences of the humanities make use of current student assessments of their value and importance.

In this segment*—which owes its existence to Professor Roisin Cossar and her history students—we hope to begin to correct this and open a direct conversation with students. The views of current students are a rich resource that can teach us much about where our teaching succeeds, where it needs to improve, or indeed where curricula needs to change outright in order to better meet the needs of students today. Additionally, their perspectives afford an opportunity to discuss the value of the humanities in a way that is immune to charges of tweedy old-timyness. Even when students today do express ideas in line with some of those discussed above, they resonate differently, or so, at least, it seems to me. But I will let you be the judge and now turn things over to our students.

(Paul Jenkins, University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities, November 27, 2017)


The Following is by University of Manitoba history student Stephanie Thorassie

My life as a Post Secondary Student began in 2001 when I was 17 years old. I left my home community of Tadoule Lake and moved to the University of Manitoba campus. I jumped head-on into culture shock as a shy quiet Sayisi Dene girl who was trying to prove to the world that despite all the obstacles faced, I would succeed. I truly believed that no matter the cards dealt in life I was just like everyone else. This was not the case. The education that I received in the one-room school of Tadoule Lake did not prepare me as much as I thought it did, and I therefore struggled to keep up with my classmates.

Yet, however many hurdles life put on my path, here I am six credits short on my Bachelor of Arts degree. I have returned from a ten-year absence writing my first assignment. I feel like I am dusting off an old bike learning to ride again. I think it is safe to say that I am resilient, stubborn, and excited! Serendipitously, I find myself surrounded by students ten plus years younger than myself. I am eager to be involved in class discussions, and complete assignments on top of the full time job, and life that I have.

Studying history and analyzing the past is intriguing and cultivating. It helps many today to look beyond the horizons of their parents. This was always my reasoning for selecting history at the University. The Dene are not surrounded by many Eurocentric resources concerning our past. We do not have written histories, centuries old family heirlooms, or Eurocentric traditions of inherited lands. A great many of us Sayisi have lost our history beyond the signing of our treaty with the Government of Canada in 1910 merely holding on to our oral traditions.

In the end, educating other people was always what I told myself I was going to do. Initially, this was to be in a classroom setting but now I talk to clients at my work as an Aesthetician. It is interesting how the road to life often twists and changes at will. I studied to be a teacher, because they were one of the only professions I was exposed to. The work I do now lets me talk to and educate those willing to listen while I do their aesthetic services. Most often people will comment on how they are surprised to see me succeeding in life because, stereotypically, I should not have been able to leave the restraints of my past and peoples. I suppose they think I am defying the odds, but I like to think I am just like most of them only with a different background showing them that Dene from the North are very capable of living a life of culture and class!

Stephanie Thorassie


*We hope this only the beginning of the conversation. We welcome responses and submissions from students, alumni, and faculty. If you would like to join the conversation, or know of someone who might, please contact the Institute for the Humanities at umih@umanitoba.ca

Readers of this post might also be interested in the webpage linked here.

2 thoughts on “Want to Assess the Importance and Value of a Humanities Education? Ask your Students

  1. One of the fundamental activities associated with a humanities education is teaching in its broadest sense and application, though its centrality does not always seem to be fully recognized. For instance, to be a historian is to be a teacher—be it in front of a class; through books, articles, museum exhibits, or TV/film; or even, as Stephanie Thorassie so nicely reminds us, through conversation and the very example of pursuing historical knowledge. I expect with appropriate tweaks and adjustments much the same could be said of any number of other humanities and social science disciplines.

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