Studies show 79 percent of literature ennobles humanity
Last week’s undergraduate research fair in the Grand River Room was packed, a sign that research is
alive and well at GVSU. Throughout the evening, interested students surrounded the many chemistry
and biology stations at the event. However, significantly fewer students appeared to visit stations
committed to the humanities or social sciences. I wondered if this disproportion was a fluke—perhaps
only chemistry professors advertised the fair, or flyers for the event only hung in Padnos.
But an inquiry into the other avenues for research on campus indicates the same disproportion.
Student Summer Scholars, for instance, is dominated by the hard sciences. Of the twenty-nine
research projects funded last summer, only five were in the humanities or social sciences. The same
trend has been evident in recent summers: few humanities and social science majors conduct
Questions immediately arise: Are students simply not proposing research projects in the humanities
or social sciences? Are they conducting research without the funding and acknowledgment of the
university? Or, do few of us see the importance of research in the humanities and social sciences?
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) research dominates for a few reasons.
When a friend assures us that “studies show…,” or when a news anchor recites, “recent studies have
found…,” we know the topic of discussion is not Shakespeare, Homer or Toni Morrison; it is, instead,
the effects of global warming or an outbreak of mad-cow disease. And we can see why universities,
institutes and the government want to fund such studies: they are so obviously practical; they have
Likewise, investors probably feel more comfortable funding a study in STEM than in English literature.
When one applies for funding to examine the effects of Mentos on Diet Pepsi, the material needs and
time requirements are quantifiable: Forty packs of Mentos will cost about forty bucks, Diet Pepsi can
be had at Costco for a dollar-fifty; we’ll need to conduct four experiments a day, so we’ll need the lab
for two hours a day, which will cost twenty bucks a day; plus gas and wear-and-tear on my vehicle,
and voila! Five hundred dollars, please! On the other hand, how should an English major quantify her
time requirements: well, my professor and I will need two, perhaps three, weeks of reading time, plus
a couple (or three, or four?) weeks to mull over an idea, then time to spend every night awake,
wondering if this will work, plus time to call my faculty research mentor at four in the morning to
discuss a possibly brilliant, possibly insane idea. Then time to throw out everything and start all over!
Surely this process is less comforting to granters of funding.
Still, the dearth of humanities and social science research is disturbing. Why? The intellectual health of
a university depends equally on the vitality of its humanities work as it does its STEM. What is more, if
a liberal arts institution is to be considered a competitor in the academic community, it had better
produce some good work and research in the liberal arts. At Grand Valley, a university that does not
employ its professors solely to do research, much of our publicity comes from the work students do.
We are, after all, primarily an undergraduate institution focused on the development of
undergraduates and their entry into the work force, grad school, the wide world.
What are the benefits, then, of funding research in the humanities and social sciences to the mission
of Grand Valley?
In short, humanities research produces greater understanding of what it means to live as a human
being; its scope encompasses, but also transcends, our position in culture and society. Thus, research
into the humanities develops our ability to engage culture, to understand diverse perspectives, to live
humanely with others.
Likewise, research in the humanities and social sciences allows us to interrogate and internalize the
beliefs of thinkers, artists, entire societies. By way of the humanities, we come to a more nuanced
understanding of our own beliefs, as well as their merits and shortcomings. We also become better
equipped to address the questions of our current world. Our anxieties about the effects of war and
social discord—prompted by conflict in the Middle East, the government shut down, etc.—can be
addressed most profoundly in the pages of Homer, Tolstoy and others. Our ability to engage these
issues defines our capacity to understand the world.
To fulfill our duties as a liberal arts institution, we ought to develop this capacity more vigorously; that
is to declare, we must foster more student-conducted research into the humanities and social