The University of 2050/The Future of the Humanities



The humanities curriculum is a crucial component for developing students into ethical and empathetic professionals. This chapter serves as a forecast and prescription for its future from our perspective as engineers.

The Importance of Humanities in Modern Education


The humanities curriculum offers valuable insight into decision making processes, ethical dilemmas, human resilience, and other critical topics. History provides examples of leaders making difficult decisions, allowing students to extract the wisdom required to make correct judgements. It reinforces the notion that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Mikhail Kalashnikov, Soviet lieutenant general and inventor of the AK-47, expressed immense spiritual anguish towards the end of his life as his creation killed millions of people[1]. He designed the rifle without knowing it may end up in the hands of the evil and in front of the innocent. Philosophy induces empathetic and ethical thinking methods, world studies allows for understanding diverse cultures and global issues, and literature develops critical writing skills. Clear technical writing and effective communication in engineering are underestimated, but are skills that can be developed through humanities courses. While a flawed idea with good presentation is doomed to failure, a good idea poorly communicated may never see the light of day.

Terry Benedict, Executive Vice President of Naval, Nuclear, and Critical Infrastructure Programs at Systems Planning & Analysis, explains that in the workforce, most accidents are not a product of poor engineering, but rather of the ethicality and decision making of people involved. He provides an investigation of a fatal accident in a construction project: The certified crane operator was absent, prompting the foreman to order an uncertified employee to move a thousand pound weight using the crane. During operation, the alarm sounded but was ignored 5 separate times. The crane’s arm eventually broke loose and the plate fell, decapitating a worker below. Benedict actively promotes and sells training programs centered on ethical conduct in the workplace. His conviction stems from a belief that ethics are important for both employers and employees, and that it is often the human factor that determines the outcome of complex systems[2]. Such ethical and decision making traits can be developed through courses in a revamped humanities curriculum.

The current state of humanities faces criticisms such as irrelevance and resistance to technological integration. Humanities courses employ outdated and impractical teaching styles, requiring students to mindlessly memorize names, dates, and definitions. The lack of modernity and technology in the curriculum undermines its importance and diminishes student enthusiasm. The relevance of humanities is at risk of being overshadowed by the growing demand and prominence of STEM. In a technology-based society, a reinvigoration of the humanities field is necessary to produce well rounded engineers. There is precedent for similar changes in education. The Sputnik launch by the Soviet Union in 1957 was the first artificial satellite sent into low earth orbit. This event spurred significant educational reform in the United States to focus on engineering skills[3]. The reform’s effects resonate even in today’s engineering curriculum, one that leaves little room for effective humanities studies. A strictly technical education neglects question, reason, and reflection, instead preparing students to follow orders or submit to authoritarian regimes, or pursue wealth and personal gain. Humanities are essential to a liberal education that allows a person to be capable of responsible autonomy.

Envisioning the Humanities Curriculum of 2050


The Humanities curriculum of 2050 will mark a significant departure from traditional structures, reflecting a more integrated and practical approach. While majors in fields such as philosophy, history, and English will still exist, this new curriculum will weave humanities into engineering education and replace arbitrary course selections with a well-structured program that complements technical training. Courses will blend technical subjects with carefully selected humanities disciplines, focusing on real-world applications and ethical considerations. This curriculum redesign ensures that, although compulsory, the integrated coursework will be engaging and inspirational, fostering genuine enthusiasm and deep learning among students.

Classes such as “Teach it to a 5-Year-Old” focus solely on the communication of complicated engineering topics to those lacking the same technical expertise. “Ethics in AI” explores the integration of ethical considerations within technical fields. It teaches students to assess the moral implications of AI technologies, such as issues around privacy, bias, accountability, and data collection. "Historical Engineering" engages students with interactive technologies like virtual reality to analyze case studies of significant engineering failures. One potential example is the Boeing 737 MAX incident in which several engineers were aware of significant issues with the MCAS system (the plane’s autopilot software) but remained silent[4]. Tragically, this silence played a critical role in causing two crashes that resulted in over 300 casualties. The discovery of their internal messages later revealed an abdication of moral responsibility, as they knowingly observed these disasters unfold without intervening.

In the realm of the technically skilled, naivete emerges as the gravest of dangers. The main objective of this envisioned curriculum is to empower engineers with practical wisdom. This interdisciplinary approach will help engineers understand the broader implications of their actions. The gravity of their decisions will be at the forefront of their mind. These customized modules described above will equip engineers with indispensable skills such as effective communication and ethical decision-making. Incidents like the Boeing 737 MAX disaster warrant a reevaluation of educational priorities in engineering. Critical training in ethics has been historically overlooked despite the frequency and severity of engineering disasters. As the curriculum of 2050 evolves, the integration of ethics into engineering education will be vital.

The envisioned 2050 humanities curriculum will bridge a vital gap in engineering education. Drawing on insights from experts like Terry Benedict[2], the curriculum emphasizes managing the duality of industry demands: achieving operational efficiency while upholding high standards of safety and ethical practice. Benedict’s success in selling such training to companies, eager to minimize risks of high-consequence events, highlights the market demand for engineers trained in ethical decision-making, sharp communication, and robust moral judgment. Schools have not traditionally offered such training. The demand for these skills, as evidenced by the investment in Benedict's programs, affirms the need to incorporate them into university curricula. Contemporary developments will set the stage for future curricular evolution in the humanities.

The Path to Our Vision


Seeds of Change


Undergraduate students at the University of Virginia are increasingly disillusioned with the state of humanities education in the late 2020s. Generative artificial intelligence can produce literature and imagery on par with skilled artists, leading students to question the true value of works they study. Other technologies like augmented and virtual reality are used only by STEM majors.

A small group of students presents an augmented reality art exhibit for an art history class project. Their professor is surprised by what the students create and sees promising applications of augmented reality in future art history lessons. The professor contacts a colleague in the Media Studies department who researches emerging media formats to learn more. Their discussion prompts the professor to redesign his course to incorporate augmented reality in assignments and interactive lectures. The changes are well received by students; that semester, course evaluations show a significant increase in student satisfaction. Word of a must-take course spreads among art history students. The course reaches full capacity in just one hour during enrollment for the next semester.

Faculty in the Art History department take notice of their colleague’s changes and the positive reception by students. They are inspired by the integration of innovative technology in the course and begin evolving their own courses to incorporate similar tools. The Art History major at the University of Virginia doubles in enrollment by the mid-2030s as these changes attract new students.

Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries


The Art History department’s success prompts discussions among the broader College of Arts & Sciences faculty about the future of humanities education. They create a task force consisting of administrators, professors, and students to explore the integration of technology in other majors. They reach out to experts in multimedia, technology, and education to brainstorm ideas for enhancing the curriculum. Students and faculty from across the College contribute their perspectives and enrich the conversation with unique insights. A key observation is that students prefer interdisciplinary and interactive courses that mix classic humanities with modern elements. The task force presents their findings to the University’s president and undergraduate deans. A team of faculty and student leaders designs a series of pilot projects incorporating new technologies and interdisciplinary approaches into curricula across the University. The pilot programs prove successful and are adopted as permanent curriculum changes.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences, an organization that collects data on the state of humanities education, recognizes the University’s pioneering approach to humanities education. The organization has continued to record a decline in humanities degrees since 2000.[5] They invite a group of professors from the University to be the keynote speakers at a national conference on the future of humanities education. The professors share their experiences and insights, sparking interest among educators from various institutions.

Recognizing a similar opportunity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the task force collaborates with engineering deans and professors to develop curricula that integrate modernized humanities. The faculty realizes the importance of cultivating engineers with multidisciplinary skill sets. To develop and assess the new curriculum, engineers are administered a project in which they work with students in non STEM majors.

Recognizing a similar opportunity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the task force collaborates with engineering deans and professors to develop curricula that integrate modernized humanities. The faculty, recognizing the value of multidisciplinary skills, integrates a project into the curriculum where engineers collaborate with non-STEM majors, exposing them to diverse perspectives and enhancing their holistic problem-solving abilities.

The Ripple Effect


The University of Virginia’s innovative approach to interdisciplinary education inspires change at colleges nationwide. Nonprofits that advocate for ethical engineering provide new grants to schools that draw from the University’s engineering curriculum. Moreover, accreditation requirements evolve as employers increasingly value candidates with multidisciplinary skill sets. The University of Virginia becomes a hub for research and collaboration on transformative educational methods, offering valuable guidance to national and governmental bodies. Professors host workshops and seminars for educators eager to adopt innovative approaches in classrooms from the elementary to graduate level. These developments further cement the University of Virginia as a national leader in higher education.


  1. Neuman, Scott (2014-01-13). "Letter: Kalashnikov Suffered Remorse Over Rifle He Invented". npr.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. a b Benedict, T. (2023, December). Preventing Failure High Consequence Events Prevention Framework (HCEPF). SYS 4050 - Risk Analysis. Charlottesville, VA; Olsson Hall, University of Virginia.
  3. harvardgazette (2007-10-11). "How Sputnik changed U.S. education". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved 2023-12-08.
  4. Freed, Rucinski, Jamie, Tracy (2020-01-11). "Factbox: In Boeing internal messages, employees distrust the 737 MAX and mock regulators". Reuters.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. "State of the Humanities 2022: From Graduate Education to the Workforce | American Academy of Arts and Sciences". Retrieved 2023-12-08.