walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Students Tuning Out Humanities Professors

LectureHall

College students have been beating a path away from the humanities. Since the 1970s, the percentage of American college students majoring in humanities fields has been cut in half—to only seven percent—as students pursue degrees in programs like science and business. As a result, a number of colleges are shuttering their under-attended programs, which is in turn shooting anxiety through the professorial guild as humanities professors fret for their future. This anxiety is given clear voice in this New York Times piece:

“In the scholarly world, cognitive sciences has everybody’s ear right now, and everybody is thinking about how to relate to it,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard history professor. “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year? But everybody’s reading science books.”

Many distinguished humanities professors feel their status deflating. Anthony Grafton, a Princeton history professor who started that university’s humanities recruiting program, said he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”

The humanities meltdown is a huge indictment of the academic fads and trends of the last generation. A serious liberal arts education in the humanities (which Via Meadia readers should remember that to us also includes a grounding in both math and science) is actually the most practical education for many students. Learning how to learn, how to communicate ideas effectively, how to assess complex situations and develop good strategies for addressing them, and strengthening your character and spiritual life: these are all more vital than ever before in the 21st century. 20th century French literary criticism, faddish race class and gender curriculums, jihads against the tradition canon because there are too many DWEMs (Dead White European Males) in it: those are less useful. Unfortunately, this is where too many professors in too many humanities departments focus too much of their energy, and students are beginning to tune them out.

Today’s humanities faculties that can’t build student enrollments are like people who can’t sell umbrellas during a rainstorm: great teachers teaching great books and great ideas are exactly what most students need. Unfortunately, too many people in the field in the last generation were interested in producing bad or indifferent teachers who taught dull and impenetrable books filled with tendentious and superficial ideas. And as for concepts like character and spiritual development, forget it. Fortunately, this seems to be changing among many younger faculty and grad students and there are grounds to hope that the humanities in America will regain some balance and poise.

In the meantime, the humanities are now reaping the natural and inevitable rewards of a generation in the wilderness: a deadly combination of student indifference and falling support among both donors and government legislators. The priests deserted the gods; the gods have deserted the temple.

[Lecture hall photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • DirtyJobsGuy

    Amity Schlaes “Coolidge” is the best sales pitch for a classic humanities education in a long time. The story of his response to the leading Philosophy professor at Amherst is engrossing. But today you couldn’t do that not only from political correctness but also from cost. Tuition at Amherst in 1903 was $110 (about $3000 today) while today’s is > $50,000. Not only is the value (in critical thinking skills) of a humanities degree degraded but the cost to get it has exploded.

    • Kavanna

      Real cost rise = 50,000/3,000 = about 16x.

  • qet

    It’s worse than you think. Math & science are necessary components of a sound education, but the trend has been to transform the humanities into “human sciences.” For most, the hallmark of “science” is the rendering of ideas solely in the form of Popperian falsifiable propositions; it appears that science is being done only when a statistical treatment of some measurable quantity has occurred. Knowledge is thought only to result from doing, not thinking. The only way one can “do” humanities, and this means the only way one can secure employment as a university professor in the USA in a humanities subject, is to scientize them. Scientization has the necessary property that it allows of frequent publishing, which is the sine qua non of university employment. There is no way that Prof. Mead does not see this every day before his eyes, even at Bard. Academics, however, are loath to criticize one another on these grounds, for sound career maintenance reasons. I strongly recommend to Via Meadia a 2006 (I believe that is the year) book by Prof. Wm Starbuck called “The Production of Knowledge.”
    Rousseau was more right than even he knew when he wrote: “It is by dint of studying man that we have made it impossible for us to know him.”

  • wigwag

    Professor Mead is right on both fronts; the demise of the humanities at America’s colleges and universities is a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that is mostly the fault of muddled-headed humanities faculty who cleave to a bizarre form of multi-cultural mumbo jumbo.

    Some prominent faculty members have bravely taken on the multicultural left who pollute institutions of higher education but they’ve been shouted down. One particularly noteworthy example is Harold Bloom of Yale who, in 1994, published his famous, “The Western Canon: The Book and School of the Ages.”

    Unfortunately critics, including Walter Russell Mead, have made a habit of taking Bloom’s remarks out of context and attacking him.

    If there were more Harold Blooms on university faculties, the humanities would be far better positioned than they are now.

    As dire as the situation is for the humanities in general, things are even worse for Classics Departments. They are closing down right and left.

    Our society will be far poorer and less dynamic than it is now if 50 years from now all college graduates know how to write computer code while few even know who Homer was.

    • Clayton Holbrook

      “…all college graduates know how to write computer code while few know who Homer was.”

      Man, I sure hope so. Let’s make it high school for that matter.

      I think you are over estimating the phenomenon of technology taking over the humanities. Indeed, humanities in college curriculum is in a bad place currently, and I wholeheartedly agree with Prof Mead and yourself that that’s a detriment. But I don’t there’s a big push for modern tech and computer science either. As it goes, and pardon the hyperbole, I don’t what the heck a lot college grads are learning these days. A whole lotta nothin’, it seems to me.

      I appreciate my university experience. I was inspired in many ways. But looking back (I graduated in 2006), I wasted a whole time and money on mandated curriculum that was useless and dated.

  • mike mace

    Karl Marx is a DWEM also.

    • Kavanna

      Yes, but he continued and expanded on the original font of this crap, Rousseau, and his noxious concept of the noble savage. That is the headwater of this whole disastrous flood.

  • RedWell

    I agree humanities folks shot themselves in the collective foot, but the other side of this story is a short-sighted drive for immediately practical and employable job skills over the well-rounded education. Employers are partly to blame for their lack of imagination, but so are the people driving for the commodification of higher ed through online courses and the like.

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    The employer demand for a college degree in most cases doesn’t care what your degree is in (outside of engineering/science). The use for a degree as a screening tool is the reason far too many people go to college, but should be a boon for the Humanities. I point you to this distribution of degrees from Yale (http://oir.yale.edu/detailed-data). If you look at the 2012/13 graduates (BA/BS) of 1308 total, only a handful are in the true classics (11) and 58 in english. while 178 were in PolySci/Global Affairs and 140 in Economics. So one fifth of the degrees are setting you up for political Government jobs.

    I will propose that Yale Grads are well positioned status wise to get a job with whatever degree they choose, and most are not fiscally challenged, yet they avoid the classic humanities.

  • crocodilechuck

    “Unfortunately, too many people in the field in the last generation were interested in producing bad or indifferent teachers who taught dull and impenetrable books filled with tendentious and superficial ideas”

    Tendentious and superficial ideas as exemplified by this?

    ““the American Indians were not treated well” *

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/books/review/Hari-t.html?_r=0

    * Irony stands mute.

  • Dexter Scott

    “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year?”

    How many years has it been since an English professor has written a book that is worth reading? Try writing something that isn’t incomprehensible drivel, and maybe people will read it.

    At Stanford, digital humanities get some of that vigor: In “Teaching Classics in the Digital Age,” graduate students use Rap Genius, a popular website for annotating lyrics from rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem, to annotate Homer and Virgil.

    This is awful, preposterous, and stupid. People are paying $60,000 a year for this tripe? It’s hard enough to justify a graduate degree in English even if you’re NOT engaged in such egregious nonsense.

    “I think that’s conceding too quickly,” said Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

    The first thing they should question is the value of a degree in English!

    His university had 394 English majors last year, down from 501 when he arrived in 1984, but Professor Edmundson said he does not fret about the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.”

    Oh yes you can lose. Because they can still have Shakespeare without YOU. Kids, would you rather hand this guy $5,000 to teach you about Shakespeare, or would you rather read Shakespeare on your own time for free? Is the value of what this guy adds to Shakespeare really $5,000?

  • lukelea

    We should make them eat spinach. Children are not supposed to know what is good for them. How could they?

    • Dexter Scott

      STEM classes = spinach (boring but good for you)

      Humanities classes = the Golden Opulence Sundae (costs a fortune, tastes great, but is still ultimately junk food)

      • lukelea

        For me the humanities mean above all history. I hope you don’t think history is junk (or bunk as Henry Ford called it)?

        • Dexter Scott

          The university environment is probably the WORST place to learn history. For one thing, the bang for the buck isn’t there. For another thing, what they will likely teach you is indeed bunk.

          Those who wish to learn history that is not bunk, and does not cost a fortune, should avoid academic history departments and engage in a program of independent reading.

          • Kavanna

            Unfortunately, all too often true — although, I’ve had some fabulous teachers of the Fuzzy Stuff, including history. The post-modern PC agenda killed most of this culture of substantive humanistic education, at least at the college level. It’s all about the victimization sweepstakes these days.

  • Anthony

    “College students have been beating a path away from the humanities.” Since late 1970s college level humanities have taken a secular beating WRM. That is, mass commercial society has both consciously and unconsciously informed prospective students that there is no monetary value in study of “Humanities”. Further, cultural changes (which you allude to) at institutions of higher learning has reinforced prestige drop in humanities study. So, on one level Quick Take is not surprising and may cohere with what you label our lack of civic coherence.

  • Anthony

    While professor Mead is correct in saying that humanities professors have, on the whole, not done such a great job in the last fifty years, it is important to remember that the real reason that students are avoiding these subjects is that they know that BA holders are likely to end up working in jobs in retail or food service. The only exception to this rule are students who have graduated from elite colleges, some of whom can get jobs on Wall Street due to the strength of their IQs, not based on what they learned in college.

    The applied science are now, far and away, first in the academic pecking order, and to the extent that people are looking for knowledge that lies outside of those domains, they are looking to economics, and maybe Psychology once in a while.

    • Anthony

      That said, if a student really wants a genuine liberal arts education and is willing to tolerate the risk of winding up in the low wage service sector, s/he should consider St. John’s College, which is the best liberal arts college in America if liberal arts colleges were measured based on their commitment to traditional liberal education. At St. John’s, every student takes the same classes, which completely revolve around the great books. Here is the curriculum. It’s very impressive

      http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/academic/readlist.shtml

      • wigwag

        Wow! Anthony, thanks for the link. That’s a very impressive curriculum. I would hire a graduate who successfully completed course work from St. John’s College in a nanosecond.

        Much of the emphasis on science, math and engineering is little more than a fashionable trend at the moment. The idea that graduates specializing in those fields will have more successful careers is little more than speculation.

        One thing I know for sure, a graduate from St. John’s is far more likely to be an engaging dinner companion and an informed citizen than a geek who graduates from MIT or Cal Tech.

        • Kavanna

          It is true that students who major in STEM subjects often end up in another, if related, field or out of technical areas altogether.

          However, it is also true that a good STEM education is invaluable in proving one’s skill at learning, precise and logical thinking, and the use of mathematics and computer programming in many contexts. That’s a pedigree that helps immensely, no matter what you do later in life.

          The humanities once provided a similar, albeit non-technical, grounding for those planning to go into law, politics, and teaching.

          Unfortunately, no more. Harold Bloom and the other doomsayers of the 1990s were right. PC triumphed and laid waste to higher education.

      • Anthony

        Addendum: core humanities value can yet be attained at UC, Columbia, and others; and question becomes what’s real value of an education (commercial or…).

        • wigwag

          If you want to laugh, Anthony, here are a couple of descriptions of the humanities courses offered at Bard during the Fall of 2013,

          “What is Zen-Buddhism?”

          We will look at the true origins of Zen-Buddhism and read central texts by both ancient and contemporary Zen masters from East and West. Special attention will be paid to the Zen arts as a poignant expression of the Zen path: poetry (haiku), calligraphy (shodo), painting (sumie), tea ceremony (chado), flower arrangement (ikebana), crafts etc. Bring the openness to not only learn about Zen-Buddhism in an abstract way but also as an experience.

          “Performing Arendt”

          This interdisciplinary studio course will investigate the writings and philosophy of Hannah Arendt and use them as the basis for the creation of collaborative performance-based projects. The class meets twice a week: once in a research and study seminar; once in a creative laboratory. We will draw inspiration from Arendt’s texts, as well as commentaries on her work, historical and contextual documents, and other writings and artifacts. After a period of immersion in Arendt’s universe, students will be divided into cross-disciplinary groups and will create original performances. In the second half of the semester, classes will alternate between performance presentations and critiques. Students will be required to meet in their groups and develop ideas outside of class. Open to moderated students. Class size: 15

          This is what passes for a humanities curriculum in the 21st century.

          Can you think of anything more pathetic?

          • Anthony

            Certainly stretches idea of continuities undergirding depth of humanities curriculum praxis.

          • Kavanna

            You are so cru-el :)

          • wigwag

            You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Humanities Departments should change their name to reflect what they now do, the Leftist Indoctrination Department. Freedom of speech, the search for truth, and the civil exchange of ideas and opinions, are excluded in favor of political correctness and leftist propaganda.

  • Palinurus

    To blame professors for the decline of the humanities is to confuse the symptom with the underlying cause. The subjects of the humanities, great works of art, have always had an uneasy relationship with democratic values and sensibilities. Their decline is little like the fall of Rome – what’s surprising is not that they’ve fallen into decline, but that they survived as long as they did.

    It’s not just that the study of the humanities looks to the past and what is old, when we prefer to look ahead and to what is young and new. Above all, great works of art make a claim to greatness. This claim defies and, for many, outrages our deeply held and extremely sensitive democratic sensibilities. Ours is after at all a uniquely world-historical age of enlightenment and right thinking, and one of our age’s most enlightened principles is a love of equality that would deny greatness to any select few (except for our time) or bestow it liberally on all. And to add insult to injury great works of art, in contrast to pop art, refuse to flatter us. Quite the contrary, they can make us feel very small at times; as Auden put it, great books read us even as we read them and, in doing so, can leave us with the distinct impression that we — and not they — are boring and wanting.

    This tension and even conflict is precisely why the humanities are essential to a liberal education, understood as the cultivation of free citizens and humane individuals who can enjoy the blessings of freedom. As John Stuart Mill put it, every true liberal should prey for vital, acute, and perceptive enemies. The best enemies — for Mill, a vital conservativism — expose our prejudices and assumptions, highlight the limits and limitations of our thought, and thereby do us the great service of making us more intelligent and maybe even better persons – that is, less bound by thought that has lapsed into the complacent, stale, and inert habits of the self-satisfied.

    But by the same token, it’s no surprise that the faddish, leveling tendencies of our culture have taken their revenge on the humanities. Critical theory is the great equalizer. Blissfully unaware of his poor plagiarisms, any second-rate disciple of a third-rate thinker can rack the great works of arts on the procrustean bed of theory and relentlessly torture them until them they admit their sins. Small wonder that fewer and fewer students go in for this sort of spectacle.

    The nice irony is that in taking their torture too far, these humanities professors might have done themselves in. Of course, if they’d paid attention to the old masters, they might have known to be careful of nemesis.

    • ljgude

      Really good comment. Particularly the bit about John Stuart Mill and the benefits of debating vital, acute and perceptive enemies. That would seem to me to describe WRM versus the current liberal/left orthodoxy. Thanks.

  • wigwag

    Here is Harold Bloom anticipating Professor Mead’s post twenty years ago,

    “I have very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise… We are destroying all intellectual and esthetic standards in the humanities… in the name of social justice. The Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible. . . I do not believe that literary studies as such have a future. The responsibility for this previously unimaginable catastrophe lies with all six branches of the School of Resentment: Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists and Semioticians.”

    Bloom goes on to say,

    “Expanding the Canon… tends to drive out the better writers, sometimes even the best. . . Nearly everything that has been revived or discovered by feminist and African-American literary scholars falls all too precisely into the category of ‘period pieces as imaginatively dated now as they were already enfeebled when they first came into existence.”

    Bloom gets it exactly right. When Shakespeare is chucked and drivel written by the likes of Toni Morrison is substituted for it, we shouldn’t be surprised that the study of the humanities is in extremis.

    • Anthony

      WigWag, Harold Bloom had had it right then as he has it right now. Still, the stultifying effect on humanities has been not just cultural but as much commercial too in that root of American ethos changed vis-a-vis classical education.

      • wigwag

        I agree.

  • ljgude

    “And as for concepts like character and spiritual development, forget it.” Surely those are just empty bourgeois concepts. no? Best forgotten so that tomorrow’s baristas are not troubled by any concern for leading an authentic life.

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