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The world needs the humanities, and UMaine is responding

Posted Jan. 21, 2015, at 2:35 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 22, 2015, at 1:56 p.m.

For about two years, the University of Maine System has made headlines, almost always in the context of an economic crisis.

There is no question that the global recession, increasing inequality and the still unclear possibilities of digital technology have put extraordinary pressure on schools at all levels across the world. Because it’s difficult to predict how these sweeping forces will play out, we can benefit from looking to the past for guidance about the values that shaped the creation of public higher education in the United States.

In 2015, the University of Maine campus in Orono celebrates its 150th anniversary. If we consider the fears and hardships that shaped the creation of public higher education at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the current situation seems not quite so full of disaster and crisis as the media — and in particular the blogosphere — might spur us to think.

During that war, political leaders — led by Sen. Justin Morrill of northern New England — advanced access to higher education and increased public investment to build new colleges that were essential for the future of a healthy republic. Popular sovereignty demands an educated citizenry to maintain itself, all the more so during uncertain times. And during the Civil War era, a novel and lasting commitment to public education was made, which remains the envy of the world.

Before founding that state-based system of public higher education, approximately 2 percent of all adult men in the U.S. went to college. By the 1960s, more than 45 percent of high school graduates started college the fall after they graduated. The figure peaked at 70 percent in 2009. Even with some decline during the Great Recession of the last five years, this marks an enormous positive transformation for individuals, their families and our communities.

What should college students study today, and how should that instruction take place? The demands of our post-industrial and information-age society require education no longer be confined to the youthful years of the traditional student and that adaptable ways of thinking be taught that can be applied to rapidly changing circumstances. In short, education needs to foster lifelong imagination and creative problem-solving.

These circumstances call for a renewed commitment to the arts and humanities as an essential component of a meaningful education alongside practical and technical skills. As the recent U.S. Congress-commissioned “Heart of the Matter” report indicated, humanities are essential for creating a “more adaptable and creative workforce and a more secure nation.”

The University of Maine Humanities Center is responding to these challenges by strengthening ties across more than 16 departments and units at UMaine with expertise in the arts and humanities and by engaging the public in events outside traditional classrooms. Initiatives include the “My Maine Culture” digital collaboration with the BDN; support for Philosophy Across the Ages, which connects high school students, undergraduates and retirement home residents for discussions about transcendent ideas; and leadership in the statewide Maine National History Day contest for students in grades 6-12.

This week, there’s the third annual Downtown Bangor Public Humanities Day. Activities kick off at 6 p.m. Friday with a night of PechaKucha-style presentations at the Coe Space on Columbia Street. Saturday’s “culture crawl” events start at 11 a.m. with the Bangor Children’s Choir at the Discovery Museum. Later, the Bangor Public Library will host discussions about books in the digital age, philosophy, film, folklore and oral history. There also also be a guided tour and discussion about exhibits at the UMaine Museum of Art. Events such as these demonstrate how the humanities add value and meaning to life.

There will be a number of other opportunities to become involved with and spotlight the humanities throughout the winter and spring.

UMaine should be in the news for a variety of reasons, most of all for engaging the public and advancing a richer understanding of our world. Only together can we ensure excellent university education remains available to all Maine residents in this time of change.

Liam Riordan is a professor of history at the University of Maine, board member of the Maine Humanities Council and director of the UMaine Humanities Center. For information about UMHC, visit umaine.edu/umhc or its Facebook page.

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