Look around for recent articles — say past five years or so — and you will find plenty proclaiming the crisis in the humanities: humanities majors make up an increasingly smaller proportion of higher education students, and all-important funding has also declined. Oh no!
Most people commenting on the crisis, such as it is, assign blame to humanities scholars themselves or to our techno-charged, capitalist zeitgeist, in which humanities classes and careers appear ever-less relevant and pragmatic.
As an example of blame in the first direction — to humanities scholars and departments — I give you the beginning of Heather Mac Donald’s piece in the Wall Street Journal:
Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.
In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”
Please accept the above without comment from me, as I have a different argument to get to. Before that, I want to provide an example of the second type of explanation for the decline in the humanities, the rising preference for business and tech-oriented majors. In an article now over a year old, Anthony P. Carnevale argues that it increasingly makes poor economic sense to gravitate to a humanities degree:
A petroleum engineering major makes $120,000 a year, and a humanities major makes about $45,000. Compared to the average college graduate, a humanities major earns about 20 percent less after graduation and over a lifetime. But one in three humanities majors catch up or surpass the average college degree.
The college mission still benefits from the humanities – just not the humanities alone. In a republic, the core college mission is to empower individuals to live fully in their time, free from economic deprivation and public dependency. But it’s hard to live fully in our time if you are living under a bridge. In a capitalist economy it’s hard to be a lifelong learner if you’re not a lifelong earner. So if colleges don’t make students employable, they are unlikely to achieve their broader goals for human flourishing.
Again, I make no comment on the above.
Now, regarding the proportion of humanities majors in colleges and universities — or even the overall interest in humanities subjects — I don’t give the topic much weight, except as perhaps indicating trends in teaching and learning. All the cultural and technological shifts since I entered college in 1988 have made little substantial impact on ways to teach humanities subjects. On the other hand, today’s students differ greatly from my generation, if we buy into the rhetoric of this 2012 New York Times story:
In interviews, teachers described what might be called a “Wikipedia problem,” in which students have grown so accustomed to getting quick answers with a few keystrokes that they are more likely to give up when an easy answer eludes them. The Pew research found that 76 percent of teachers believed students had been conditioned by the Internet to find quick answers.
“They need skills that are different than ‘Spit, spit, there’s the answer,’ ” said Lisa Baldwin, 48, a high school teacher in Great Barrington, Mass., who said students’ ability to focus and fight through academic challenges was suffering an “exponential decline.” She said she saw the decline most sharply in students whose parents allowed unfettered access to television, phones, iPads and video games.
For her part, Ms. Baldwin said she refused to lower her expectations or shift her teaching style to be more entertaining. But she does spend much more time in individual tutoring sessions, she added, coaching students on how to work through challenging assignments.
In other words, while humanities subjects have themselves changed in their approach and content, humanities teaching has not yet accepted that its student learners have also changed. Today’s students cannot be taught and cannot be held to the same sorts of expectations as students brought up in the 1960s-1980s (roughly).
We should teach today’s students based on their actual educational background and with focus on the particular humanities skills they already have. Students enter college having read fewer books than we did, and even fewer of the same titles, so a college survey class has to acknowledge where students are. Today’s students tend to dislike prolonged, close reading, preferring instead the visceral charge of search and retrieve. Yet the humanities application of search and retrieve makes a very useful skill and a nice pedagogical entrance to reading as I know it: close, considered analysis of text and context.
As for the generational changes in the humanities and the so-called crisis, the whole issue signifies very little as far as I can tell. Everyone who wants to bash humanities quotes Shakespeare; most of these folks have themselves read only a handful of complete plays and some of the famous sonnets. And while I love Shakespeare and always enjoy teaching something like Hamlet, I also know that had some cultural and historical events worked out differently, someone like Thomas Middleton could actually have become the center of the western literary canon. In other words, the cultural studies and historicist impulses of the much-maligned postmodernists no less value than any of the works one might read.
Finally, the other aspect of the crisis, the pragmatic irrelevance of the humanities, seems a view founded in wrong-headed and parochial thinking. I agree that an English, History, or Political Science major will not necessarily get one a specific wage-slave job right out of school. But make no mistake that one absolutely cannot advance or succeed professionally without mature humanities-type skills. Number one of these skills is understanding and being able to articulate the points of views of other people, including customers, business rivals, innovators, suppliers, investors, and many others. Other people’s points of view: that’s what helps people to make smart business decisions and succeed in ventures, and no disciplines stress other people’s points of view as much or as well as humanities disciplines. Other people’s points of view: this is both a skill and a source of knowledge, as the act of seeking differently also permits knowledge of that new perspective.
Many talk of a humanities in crisis. I rather see a humanities evolving in a changing environment yet ultimately offering skills and knowledge of the greatest value to professionals, citizens, and thinkers alike.