Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Future of the Humanities

A recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe notes the shrinking percentage of college students majoring in the humanities. The entire editorial appears below:
Economic necessity is a rigid academic counselor. So it’s no surprise that the percentage of undergraduates majoring in the humanities keeps on declining, from 17 percent in 1966 to 8 percent in 2007. Especially in the face of today’s crippling debt levels and dreary job market, even students who adore Shakespeare’s poetry are seeking more marketable academic credentials. And yet the value of literature, philosophy, and history remains what it always has been — a mostly impractical gift that the undergraduate is given for a lifetime.

College administrators can only do so much to persuade students to major in the humanities. What they can and should do is make sure undergraduates take some courses that at least introduce them to Plato and Sophocles, or St. Augustine and Martin Luther, or James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. The student who’s destined to work on a computer for a living may still gain more from learning about the French Revolution than, say, an extra tuneup on HTML.
The Globe sees jobs and job-seeking as the driving force of the decline but provides no data in support of the link. I would love to see a study of why college students today choose the majors they do and why they don't choose majors (or minors) that otherwise still interest them.

Today's students may feel pressure to give priority to certain majors outside of the humanities. However, they might--or might also--hold less less interest in humanities subjects compared to other majors.

The difference is important for anyone thinking about the public perception of the humanities, on the one hand, and both the content and tools of humanities scholarship, on the other hand.

Some of the interesting comments to the Globe piece (numbering is mine):
(1) The cretins who scribble their screed all over the Globe will never have a clue on the value of the humanities. Arts and letters are barely surviving in Amerika but they are the reason we fight wars for freedom. Who ever stepped in front of a gun for progress in math and science or a better shopping mall? The humanities are how we EXPRESS freedom. Even if a country full of face-stuffing, comatose consumers and conquerors cannot see it or care less.

(2) The long demise of the humanities in academe is fully deserved by their professoriate, who have vainly sought academic respectability by focusing on abstruse technical and procedural issues (e.g., semiotics, post-modern deconstructionism) rather than substance, which in the humanities case is values. The purpose of the humanities is not personal decoration, but self-development.

The greatest opportunity for strengthening the humanities today is in the study of philanthropy—Classically conceived as the "love of what it is to be human", translated into Latin (with paideia) as "humanitas", and applied by the Founding Fathers in creating this country as a gift to mankind, to raise the human condition to higher levels (Alexander Hamilton in the first paragraph of the first page of the first Federalist Paper, where he "adds the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism". Philanthropy, not academic humanities, is today our nation's school for values—education by exercising values in giving and volunteering.

(3) The humanities are far from dead, they simply are no longer buried alive in Universities. With new technical tools people can now embark on studies of the humanities throughout their entire lifetime in a manner that is more conducive for learning. By forming their own quest for knowledge and honing their own methods of inquiry, learners are now able to exchange information and gain the insights that translate into knowledge with other learners worldwide.

The artificial designations of professors and students are being replaced with the understanding that learning occurs throughout everyone's lifetime. The hoarding of specific expertise to assure a lifetime of employment is being replaced by the ability to rapidly access, research, assimilate and distribute information. When that information is coupled with a foundation in HOW TO LEARN a lifetime of studies in the humanities is now possible for everyone.

In the face of a "crippling debt and dreary job market" it is the emancipation of the humanities from the impractical gift of 4 years of glorified babysitting that is the gift of technology to the spirit of us all. It makes the practicalities of the dark aspects of economic conditions bearable and brings a thread of light and hope.

(4) This entire thing is a huge non-issue. How many articles has the Globe run in recent years complaining about the dearth of college students majoring in Engineering and Mathmatics?

Measuring by percentages in this case is useless. As one major increases, another has to decrease. No matter how you slice it, you can't exceed 100% so the decrease has to come from somewhere.

If we (as a society) really want more people to complete higher education in both the Sciences AND Humanities, the answer lies in reducing the absurd tuition and fees the schools charge while they beef up their endowment funds and over-pay their staff. Throw the percentages out and look at the raw numbers of graduates.
Arguments abound for the personal, material, and social value of humanities learning, so I won't rehearse such arguments here. Yet, I want to point to three posts by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne on "great literary endings" (here, here, and here). The posts and their ensuing threads collect responses and side discussions on aesthetics, literary technique, and categories. Those who read Coyne's blog regularly know that aesthetics, technique, and categorization factor into his science concerns as well.

The common ground is fertile ground, it seems to me, and there's opportunity to emphasize the fundamental knowledge and skills--and their attendant pleasures--offered especially by/in the humanities.

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