Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Who Killed the Humanities?

Over the past generation, David Brooks notes, fewer and fewer college students are signing up to study courses in the humanities. In place of English literature and Greek philosophy they are studying accounting and finance. Link here.

Given the state of the job market, Brooks fears that the trend will continue, and maybe even accelerate.

At the same time, and coincidentally, Stanley Fish has posted a paean to the virtues of classical education on his Times blog. Link here.

I will say that I am highly sympathetic with both columns. Given my somewhat advanced age I too remember a time when high school was filled with courses in Latin, French, algebra, calculus, trigonometry, history, civics, and the like. These were the courses that Stanley Fish took in high school, and he would be willing to force today's students to study them also.

Fish is right to say that students would benefit from reading great fiction, wrestling with great ideas, and learning the history of their and other nations.

But, if the humanities have lost out to accounting and finance, who is responsible? Who killed the humanities? Neither Brooks nor Fish even mentions this issue, perhaps because it is not a new question. Furthermore, most people agree on the answer.

And yet, the question of who killed the humanities, is for lovers of Sherlock Holmes stories, the dog that didn't bark.

There are at least three answers.

First, when the 1960s counterculture set out to reform university education it gave students vastly more freedom to choose their own courses of study. As a result, students began to gravitate away from humanities courses. They were voting with their tuition money, and they chose to take fewer courses in English literature.

Second, and, and more importantly, the counterculture introduced theories and practices that tended to degrade great literature and great philosophy. Professors began to make a career out of attacking the classics and devaluing what they called: the canon.

As good cultural warriors these academics happily declared that the classics that Brooks, Fish, and I hold dear are nothing more than instruments of societal oppression. By their lights the classics became classics because they were supporting the ruling power elite and the patriarchy. Worse yet, they were working to repress and suppress sexual pleasure. The victims of the classics were the working class and minorities.

When today's students take a course in literature they will be learning that Shakespeare sexist, that Aristotle was misogynistic, that Plato was homophobic, that Dickens was a cultural imperialist... and so on and so on.

The most relevant question is whether or not today's professors would be able to teach the classics or the canon in ways that Brooks, Fish, and I would like.

Students may be moving away from serious study of the great classics, but, in that they are simply following their professors who gave them up a generation ago.

A student might thrill to the genius of Jane Austen but why should she take a course from a professor whose most recent paper purports to explain away Pride and Prejudice by an analysis of how often Jane Austen masturbated?

Once counterculture warriors reduced the classics to symptoms of societal ills, it was not long before they decided that there was no real difference between great literature and great advertising slogans, between great philosophy and mediocre comic books. They insisted that there was no such thing as intrinsic value, intrinsic artistic merit, or intrinsic philosophical greatness.

Clearly, many universities still offer academically rigorous courses in the classics. But if you should decide to major in a department that falls within the category of the humanities, you will find it nearly impossible to avoid rampant political correctness.

And that too is part of the problem. How fairly will a college student's work be judged by a professor who wears his political correctness as a badge of honor? How objectively will his work be appraised by a professor who believes that his role is to indoctrinate his students?

Given the importance of grades, why would a student take the chance that he will be spending good tuition money on a course where his professor will tell him how to think and that will lower his grade if he chooses to think differently.

Doesn't this offer at least a partial explanation for the growing enrollments in courses in accounting and finance? As opposed to the humanities and the classics, these increasingly popular courses involve numbers. When you take a test in accounting there are right and wrong answers. If you take a course in finance you will know that you will be competing on a level playing field, on exactly the same basis as your peers. You will feel confident that you will be judged on your ability and your hard work, not on whether or not you can parrot the professor's opinion.

Can you say as much about a course in Shakespeare or Hegel?

Sorry to say, but college students did not kill the humanities. Clearly, that dishonor belongs to those culture warriors who entered the teaching profession after the 1960s and who have dedicated their careers to its deconstruction.


Anonymous said...

As a gentle correction: Austen, Stuart; Jane Austen.

This, again, is a fascinating subject to me. I actually had a very good Humanities course in high school with factual history presented as backdrop to the literature of the era. Classical. Canonical and thorough. With Honors English classes and calculus, I was well prepared for college.

I was awarded, after much hard work, a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. (Um, and a commission as an Officer in the US Army.)

I had the great good fortune of having friends who had excellent classical educations from excellent institutions.

I found myself uneducated.

I had an outstanding vocational degree in science and engineering, and great worldly experience, but I was not educated. I was lacking; the dullard in our discussions. I didn't even have the Postmodern cant to impeach thier classical ideas.

I set about to educate myself. I read Shakespeare, Hardy, Austen, Plutarch, Tacitus, The Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Johnson, Blake, Milton, Eliot, TE Lawrence, Rumi, Confucius, The Bagavad Gita, Kerouac, London, Orwell, Lacan, Hegel, Dickens, Flaubert, Conrad... All of it; all of it that I can....

I did my best, and I am still at it.

I wish I had the luxury of a classical education with the earning power, and fascinating life, and ideas, of science and engineering.

I am working, and fullfilled, as a defense engineer and musician, but I lean on the classics to understand my place in the world.

Finally, I can "hold my own" in discussions with my eminent friends, but it was an uphill climb, and it is not over.

The Academy left me lacking: I had to do it myself. I dream about someday, in my dotage, going back for a big, luxurious degree in sociology, or military history, or music theory, or English Lit. And travel--Scotland s'more and more of Asia....

But, alas, I must fill my belly, and the bellies of my wife and kids. Someday....


wv: humboal. What you burn when there is no more coal; very Dickensian.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Gray, for pointing out the misspelling... now corrected.