June 25, 2018
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Public, professors to rub elbows at Augusta summit, discuss role of humanities in Maine

By Robert Long, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Understanding the ethical implications of science is an art.

That’s one of the messages representatives of the University of Maine Humanities Initiative hope to convey during a free summit Friday at the Governor Hill Mansion in Augusta. The goal of the summit is to bring together scholars, political leaders, museum officials, librarians — and the public — to “initiate a conversation about the public benefit of the arts and humanities to the state,” according to Justin Wolff, director of the initiative.

“The arts and humanities aren’t just entertaining,” Wolff said. “At the humanities initiative, we believe the arts and humanities are essential to the success and well-being of our state. The summit brings together people to strategize ways to articulate how important arts are to the people of Maine.”

The summit occurs at a time when the humanities are, if not under siege, then backed up against the ramparts. Only 8 percent of U.S. college students now major in one of the disciplines associated with the humanities, down from a high of more than 17 percent in 1967, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The current number of humanities majors in the University of Maine system mirrors the national percentage, Wolff said.

A job-shredding recession starting in 2007 spurred parents, students and government leaders to reassess the costs and benefits of a college education, leading many to seek stronger links between courses of study and post-graduate job prospects. Humanities faculties are static or shrinking, and funding challenges grow as administrators target resources at programs seen as yielding more direct workforce returns.

Florida lawmakers have considered a tiered tuition system that would allow state universities to charge lower tuitions to students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs that feed an increasingly technology-based workforce.

North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory in January labeled students who pursue degrees in the humanities and other indirectly vocational studies “the educational elite,” suggesting they go to private colleges because “I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic legislative leaders have identified filling a workforce skills gap as a priority, but much of their focus has been on STEM and vocational programs. Wolff believes the humanities should be involved more directly in discussions about preparing Maine students to meet employers’ needs, which is an issue the summit will address.

“It’s a misconception that people in humanities can’t get jobs. Their skills are in high demand,” Wolff said. “All employers want people who can think critically, write well and communicate.”

The humanities promote those skills, which provide a complement to rather than competition with STEM programs, he said.

“There’s no reason to pit STEM and humanities against one another,” Wolff said. “We need to understand how humanities is the basis for all other disciplines. You don’t want an engineer who can’t communicate.”

Friday’s summit aims to highlight the benefits of the humanities to Maine’s economy and society as a whole, Wolff said. Those benefits range from a “creative economy” that employs thousands of Maine artists, writers and thinkers to larger events, such as the American Folk Festival that annually draws thousands of visitors to Bangor. But the state’s people and its political leaders often don’t recognize those assets because they are more difficult to measure than the contributions of STEM programs, he said.

The arts are more than about entertainment, but because they are inherently entertaining, Friday’s summit will be too, Wolff said. Those who attend won’t have to wear tweed jackets with patches on the elbows or have to know which ear Van Gogh hacked off. They should simply be prepared for an open, lively and wide-ranging discussion. Public participation is encouraged.

Because creative thinking is at the heart of good humanities education, Wolff expects the summit will engage participants in creative problem solving about current funding problems, “break down the boundaries between academia and the public and create lasting conversations.”

The summit caps a week’s worth of events for the University of Maine Humanities Initiative, which was created in 2010 with funding from the university’s president and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

On Wednesday, May 15, the humanities initiative will hold several events in Bangor, including a walking tour of historical downtown locations led by Tom McCord, from the University of Maine, and Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague.

Wolff believes the conversations initiated at Friday’s summit will yield a common vocabulary designed to ensure that Maine people understand scientific advances in human terms.

“As we invent new technologies, society expects there to be scholars and ethicists who think about the moral implications of new technologies, including end-of-life care and body modification,” he said. “We want people who can speak intelligently about how these affect our sense of self and civic well-being. This is an essential role in a civilized state to think about ethical implications of new technology or government policy.”

To register for the summit, email Amy Cross at amy.cross@umit.maine.edu. To see the summit’s program, click here.

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