The “death of the human­i­ties” on col­lege cam­puses has been widely reported in the media, par­tic­u­larly as the reces­sion has pres­sured stu­dents to pursue pro­fes­sional courses of study. But to para­phrase Mark Twain, it’s a death that has been greatly exag­ger­ated, says the dean of Northeastern’s Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, Georges Van Den Abbeele. In fact, he explains here, the human­i­ties have never been more rel­e­vant to stu­dents and to society.

What is your take on the media reports about “the death of the human­i­ties?”

I don’t think it’s a ques­tion of keeping the human­i­ties alive. They have never been more alive, even as they remain crit­i­cally under­funded and under-​​resourced. The human­i­ties and the social sci­ences, by their very name, are about human beings, lit­er­ally every­thing that people do, or think or imagine. From this point of view, the “human sci­ences” are the hub of the entire cre­ative intel­lec­tual process, in the Uni­ver­sity and beyond.

And while there tends not to be a direct cor­re­la­tion between our fields of study and poten­tial careers, in truth, we pre­pare our stu­dents to pursue almost any career, including ones that our grad­u­ates will invent, as has often been the case.

Then what accounts for the idea that seems to be really preva­lent now, that human­i­ties studies in par­tic­ular have become irrel­e­vant?

The human­i­ties and social sci­ences are too often viewed as abstract fields of learning, dis­em­bodied and dis­con­nected from every­thing else.

Those of us in the field need to coun­teract this. Some­thing I’ve insisted upon throughout my career, and con­tinue to do here, are the living con­nec­tions between the kinds of knowl­edge humanist scholars pursue and the kinds of knowl­edge that is needed and pur­sued in a variety of occupations.

What are those con­nec­tions, espe­cially here at Northeastern?

Take aca­d­emic research, for example. Cur­rently there are three big research themes at the Uni­ver­sity: health, sus­tain­ability, and secu­rity. How do the human­i­ties and social sci­ences fit into these? At first glance, it appears we don’t fit in at all.

In fact, if you look at health, it isn’t enough just to develop new drugs or treat­ments: health policy and eco­nomics are cru­cial for their imple­men­ta­tion; and in under­standing how people relate to health care sys­tems, cul­tural issues can be cru­cial. In one of my pre­vious insti­tu­tions, we devel­oped an entire cur­riculum in med­ical Spanish, because the area had a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion speaking only Spanish, with dif­ferent cul­tural rela­tions to ill­ness and well­ness that posed par­tic­ular chal­lenges for med­ical prac­ti­tioners unfa­miliar with the lan­guage and culture.

Sus­tain­ability is sim­ilar. In addi­tion to the chal­lenge of inventing green tech­nolo­gies, we have envi­ron­mental policy issues, and issues of envi­ron­mental ethics, which is a branch of philosophy.

Sus­tain­ability, too, is about the main­te­nance of our cul­tures, our past, and our iden­ti­ties, under­standing who we are and where we came from, as well as the very dif­ferent back­grounds of other cul­tures, peo­ples, and places.

And secu­rity is not just about defusing bombs, but about under­standing the psy­chology and the cul­tures of aggrieved groups. Lan­guages are, in them­selves, whole ways of under­standing pro­foundly how one thinks inside.

An example I often give is the inva­sion of Iraq. The Army’s corps of inter­preters had been trained in Morocco. Now, Arabic is the same written lan­guage, but as a spoken lan­guage, it’s very dif­ferent from region to region. In Baghdad, 3,000 miles away, those folks couldn’t under­stand Moroccan Arabic if they tried. So our forces couldn’t func­tion effec­tively, because we didn’t have the right lin­guistic and cul­tural skills.

How have you seen North­eastern stu­dents respond to the human­i­ties and social sci­ences in your rel­a­tively short time here?

One of the things you read about is the elim­i­na­tion or cur­tail­ment of lan­guage pro­grams. And yet, the gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents coming in today is filling up lan­guage classes. They’re doing it because, post-​​9/​11, they fully under­stand the world as a global envi­ron­ment and the need to under­stand other lan­guages. And they’re learning really dif­ferent com­bi­na­tions: Arabic and Can­tonese, Spanish and Hindi, Russian and Portuguese.

This is espe­cially true here, because our stu­dents are going on global co-​​ops, they’re going on Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions trips, and they really want to under­stand the cul­tures they visit. And their interest did not just begin here. Some 32 per­cent of the stu­dents who entered North­eastern this fall had five or more years of high school lan­guage. So rather than cut­ting in this area, we need to find ways to build.

North­eastern has its own unique edu­ca­tional approach: expe­ri­en­tial learning and co-​​op. How does this make the human­i­ties spe­cial here?

First, I don’t accept the idea that expe­ri­en­tial learning is in con­tra­dic­tion with the lib­eral arts. In fact, they go very closely together.

Co-​​op and expe­ri­en­tial learning are about taking the lessons one learns in the class­room and testing them in another envi­ron­ment. I think this makes the human­i­ties and social sci­ences more attrac­tive. The oppor­tu­nity to take Middle Eastern studies, for example, and then work with an NGO in Cairo or Beirut or Tel Aviv, or to pursue a major in his­tory and work on cul­tural preser­va­tion in Peru is to gain an incred­ibly rich edu­ca­tion while engaging in work of the highest importance.

To me this means that co-​​op is not just a sig­na­ture pro­gram for North­eastern, it’s the cor­ner­stone of what lib­eral arts edu­ca­tion should be going forward.

It also under­cuts the idea that stu­dents majoring in the human­i­ties don’t really have career oppor­tu­ni­ties, because, in fact, co-​​op can show them what’s possible.

When I visit alumni, they are in any number of fields. They’re in busi­ness, they’re in law, they’re in the sci­ences, they’re in tech­nology, they’re in all kinds of careers you couldn’t have pre­dicted from their under­grad­uate major.

It also makes a big dif­fer­ence that the human­i­ties are irre­ducibly inter­dis­ci­pli­nary. I’m struck not only by the number of our stu­dents learning widely dif­ferent lan­guages, but also by the number of com­bined majors, and major-​​minor com­bi­na­tions, whether it’s biology and Eng­lish or phi­los­ophy and engi­neering, or what have you. It’s an indi­cator of where we are, and where the strength of this Uni­ver­sity lies, because the stu­dents who come with that kind of cre­ativity in their majors are going to be equally cre­ative in their careers.

Are the same forces dri­ving grad­uate studies as well?

Grad­uate edu­ca­tion in the human­i­ties has tra­di­tion­ally focused exclu­sively on preparing future pro­fes­sors. And while that prepa­ra­tion will always be a nec­es­sary part of what the Ph.D. is — it is the cre­den­tial that allows you to become a Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor — in the sci­ences, and even in the arts, that isn’t always the pre­ferred outcome.

I’ve tracked a lot of human­i­ties Ph.D.s, and they often go into other fields—publishing, his­toric preser­va­tion, gov­ern­ment relations—so it’s not true, sta­tis­ti­cally speaking, that human­i­ties Ph.D.s have fewer job options than others, unless you limit that to purely aca­d­emic employment.

I think it’s a lesson we need to take to heart: stop thinking of the Ph.D.s who do some­thing other than teach in a Uni­ver­sity as fail­ures. We need to see them as the pos­i­tive, cre­ative suc­cesses they are, and value that.