Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Humanities in Crisis

Writing in The Atlantic Benjamin Schmidt analyzes why the Humanities are in crisis. By that he (and everyone else) means that fewer and fewer college students are majoring in literature, languages, philosophy and history. Instead, students are flocking to STEM courses and to courses the retain the patina of science-- like psychology.

By his theorizing, the trend was set in motion by the 2008 financial crisis. Students came to believe that they would have a better chance of being hired by Google if they majored in statistics or computer science. They no longer saw the value in developing what Schmidt calls a philosophy of life-- which is presumably what Humanities courses teach.

To debunk the notion, he adds a bunch of statistics showing that the perception of job opportunity is just that… a perception.

Students aren’t fleeing degrees with poor job prospects. They’re fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects. If the whole story were a market response to student debt and the Great Recession, students would have read the 2011 census report numbering psychology and communications among the fields with the lowest median earnings and fled from them. Or they would have noticed that biology majors make less than the average college graduate, and favored the physical sciences. Most 18-year-olds are not econometricians, and those that are were probably going to major in economics anyway.

Unfortunately, Schmidt’s analysis has limited value. He pays lip service to the role of gender-- psychology has become nearly all female; engineering is nearly all male-- and largely ignores the role of ethnicity.

More Asian students take STEM courses than do white or minority students. Minority students who are admitted under diversity quotas do not enroll in STEM courses because they would have difficulty doing the work. They prefer Humanities courses because these do not have objective standards of right and wrong. Thus, they can make their way through college in the Humanities, and especially in ethnic studies majors… something they could not do in engineering or physics.

If Harvard increases the number of diversity candidates and decreases the number of Asian candidates, it will end up with more students majoring in the Humanities and fewer students majoring in STEM subjects. Thus, the decline in the Humanities would be worse if diversity quotas were eliminated.

For your edification, here is Schmidt’s analysis of the decline:

But something different has been happening with the humanities since the 2008 financial crisis. Five years ago, I argued that the humanities were still near long-term norms in their number of majors. But since then, I’ve been watching the numbers from the Department of Education, and every year, things look worse. Almost every humanities field has seen a rapid drop in majors: History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s. Student majors have dropped, rapidly, at a variety of types of institutions. Declines have hit almost every field in the humanities (with one interesting exception) and related social sciences, they have not stabilized with the economic recovery, and they appear to reflect a new set of student priorities, which are being formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom.

History is also in decline:

The American Historical Association surveyed history departments and found course enrollments dropping by 7.7 percent from 2014 to 2017, with upper-level courses seeing greater declines than introductory ones. This is bad, but not as catastrophic as the numbers of history majors, which fell by 20 percent in the same period. That suggests that either the declines are beginning to stabilize, or that students are more willing to spend elective credits on humanities courses than to major in them.

One notes, because Schmidt does not, that students used to major in history as a way to prepare for law school. If the legal profession has undergone hard times, the number of students majoring in history has also seen a decline.

How alarming is it? Schmidt has the answer:

Perhaps most alarming is that the recent decline is especially severe at liberal-arts colleges and more elite schools. While many writers worry too much about the most prestigious universities, they have always been some of the only places where the humanities were central to the mission of higher education. Elite liberal-arts colleges have historically been about evenly divided between the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. But in the past decade, their humanities majors have fallen from a third to well under a quarter of all degrees. Elite research universities, too, have seen a drop to about 70 percent of their precrisis numbers. The rare schools not to have a seen a drop in humanities enrollments tend to be regional comprehensive universities that never had much of a specialty in the humanities to begin with.

Many of us believe that Humanities programs are no longer really teaching the Humanities anyway. We understand that many of these courses have become indoctrination mills where radical ideology is peddled under the guise of literature and history. And, if Humanities programs attract more students who were admitted to fulfill diversity quotas, one might expect that the classes have been dumbed down.

Schmidt says that it’s not about liberal pieties. In truth, it’s less about liberal pieties than about ideologically driven thinking that will make any student incapable of holding down a good job in the economy:

Do you think students are put off by liberal pieties in the classroom? It’s difficult to square that argument with the two decades of stability that followed the beginning of the culture wars in the late 1980s; and postmodernism hasn’t completely swept the field at schools like Brigham Young University’s main campus (down 20 percent) or Bob Jones University (down 30 percent). Do you blame student loans and the cost of college? Then why has the decline been nearly as strong at schools where student debt is almost nonexistent, like Princeton University (down 28 percent) and the College of the Ozarks (down 44 percent)?

In many cases Humanities professors have disguised their dumbness by indulging in absurd theoretical rants that they pass along as nuggets of wisdom. What with identity politics and radical ideology, the Humanities are now run by pseudo-intellectual poseurs.

Recall Avital Ronell, the NYU professor who was suspended for harassing a graduate student. Everyone assumes that she is brilliant and so on, but few of us have really bothered to examine her work. When you do, it turns out to be disappointing, pretentious and ignorant. Here are a couple of salient quotations:

“Now, what if Others were encapsulated in Things, in a way that Being towards Things were not ontologically severable, in Heidegger's terms, from Being towards Others? What if the mode of Dasein of Others were to dwell in Things, and so forth? In the same light, then, what if the Thing were a Dublette of the Self, and not what is called the Other? Or more radically still, what if the Self were in some fundamental way becoming a Xerox copy, a duplicate, of the Thing in its assumed essence?”

Clearly, she does not care that Heidegger was a notable Nazi… but, what did you expect? Granting intellectual authority to a Nazi... it will get you a tenured professorship at NYU and at most other great universities.

Or else, try out this passage, which provides a rationalization for stalking behavior… the kind she was accused of:

“Exemplary friendship embraces, in a resolutely unrequited way, an unwearied capacity for loving generously without being loved back. Marking the limit of possibility—the friend need not be there—this structure recapitulates in fact the Aristotelian values according to which acts and states of loving are preferred to the condition of being-loved, which depends for its vigor on a mere potentiality. Being loved by your friend just pins you to passivity. For Aristotle, loving on the contrary, constitutes an act. To the extent that loving is moved by a kind of disclosive energy, it puts itself out there, shows up for the other, even where the other proves to be a rigorous no-show. Among other things, loving has to be declared and known, and thus involves an element of risk for the one who loves and who, abandoning any guarantee of reciprocity, braves the consequences when naming that love.”

There is nothing exemplary or Aristotelian in engaging a friendship that is not reciprocated. To think so is to rationalize bad and abusive behavior.

If this is the summit of American intellectual life, then we easily understand why students are avoiding this nonsense in favor of more courses where their achievements will be evaluated fairly and honestly.


David Foster said...

The late Dr Michael Hammer, a renowned management consultant, argued that the aspiring executive should have a dual undergraduate major: for example----electrical engineering and philosophy , mechanical engineering and medieval history , or aeronautical engineering and theology. (He was very opposed to the undergraduate business major, which he saw as pretty useless.) He didn't expect the fields of study to be directly applicable to the student's future work, but rathersaw the dual major as a way to develop complementary conceptual skills.

This was something he wrote about circa 20 years ago. His idea of the humanities involved "Plato and Madison and Joyce...Wrestling with questions of good and evil, of democracy and justice, of personal and communal responsibilities." I doubt he would have thought that the kinds of mush and blather which dominate so much of the 'humanities' today would have done much good.

Seems to me that 'the crisis in the humanities' actually occurred a couple of decades or more ago...all that is going on now is the delayed reaction.

Sam L. said...

Those two quotations are excellent, if not outstanding, examples of bafflegab.
As for the colleges, it appears that students have figured out that many degrees are nearly worthless.

Wye Pay Mor said...

Mad Magazine asked this question many years ago: “Do you believe that the present manic-depressive element in modern literature is due to the retreat of a suppressed libido into the realm of an ultra-conscious mysticism which has resulted in the atavistic reversion to heroes motivated by so-called base impulses? Or do you believe this is an unconscious reversal in protest against Victorian Romanticism?”

Moral of the story? Reading Mad Magazine has enabled me to BS with the best of them.

Walt said...

When I went to college, long ago (partial scholarship, debt-free) in a much wider job market, I had the luxury of using it just to educate myself, to learn at least a little about a lot of things and actually resented having to choose a major. But at the current rate of 50-70K/yr ( aside from the fact that I couldn't have gone at all) I guess I'd've had to take a different and more pragmatic approach, much to my personal loss.