As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry

17

On Stanford University’s sprawling campus, where a long palm-lined drive leads to manicured quads, humanities professors produce highly regarded scholarship on Renaissance French literature and the philosophy of language.

They have generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is students: Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.

With Stanford’s reputation in technology, it is no wonder that computer science is the university’s most popular major, and that there are no longer any humanities programs among the top five. But with the recession having helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation, administrators are concerned.

“We have 11 humanities departments that are quite extraordinary, and we want to provide for that faculty,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid.

Written By: Tamar Lewin
continue to source article at nytimes.com

17 COMMENTS

  1. There was a time when Latin, Ancient Greek, and theology were taught as a major proportion of university courses. In the modern age education services need to move on and evolve alongside the population.

    Some arts and humanities should be regarded as professions for small minorities of specialists, and hobbies for others, while the more productive: sciences, mathematics, technologies, languages and business, take a larger place.

    • In reply to #2 by Alan4discussion:

      while the more productive: sciences, mathematics, technologies, languages and business, take a larger place.

      more productive, reality based and with the possible exception of business, not bullshit ridden.

  2. The problem is, people who took degrees in the humanities discovered the only job it qualified them for is barista. University used be considered as preparing you for life, learning how to think. Today it is a ticket to a job to pay off that ghastly student loan.

  3. *People rather have a job; it’s like Philosophy. When was the last time you saw a job posting for a Philosopher *
    Quite right, Aquilacane (Comment 1). There are a lot of unemployed philosophers around. (An unemployed philosopher is one who isn’t thinking at the moment.)

  4. We do need a robust humanities output. Who else can teach composition, grammar and the like. Not to mention the appreciation of human artistic endeavor in many areas.

    Still, much of the lack of interest in the humanities is the fault of the humanities. Post modernism and relativism both too holds on the humanities and sitting in an English class and hearing from your English composition teacher;,” We do not know where the Native Americans came from, It could have been Mars, or Japan, we just don’t know ” is rather disappointing to say the least.

  5. I believe in a well rounded education. For example I think a biology major can benefit from studying the life of Charles Darwin. If one reads about Darwin one learns that scientific discoveries can have a significant social impact. We can also learn from Darwin that he was man of his time and was influenced by the prejudices of his day. In other words in addition to be being a genius he was a regular human being who could not foresee the impact of his discoveries and sometimes he got things wrong. So, if you are biologist or any scientist for that matter you need to realize that you have your own prejudices and people can and will misinterpret your discoveries no matter the truth.

    Furthermore, as someone with a history degree I can say a book like the Selfish Gene by Dawkins influenced the way I think about history. After reading the book I began to see that altruistic behavior and selfish behavior are two ideas that must always exist among humans.

  6. Part of the problem is that our ever-advancing technology changes so quickly that in engineering and the physical/natural sciences (my personal background), there is barely enough time to get in all the courses required to qualify in one’s major in four years, let alone take a class on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Nor is the problem limited to the humanities versus science, technology, engineering, and math, collectively called STEM disciplines.

    I did not finish my undergraduate degree until the ripe, old age of 44 (five years ago-long story), but from my mid-20′s to late 30′s, I made it a point to take several college classes every year, and some years I took enough classes to qualify as a 3/4 time student-while working full-time. During the all that time, I have lost count of how many electrical engineering majors I met that were abysmally ignorant of, for instance, evolution. In the U.S., the engineering disciplines have a distressingly high proportion that self-identify as creationists. Many of the undergraduates (much younger than, I to be sure) that I came to know when I was finishing my B.Sc. were woefully ignorant of other areas of human inquiry outside the narrow confines of their own academic major. Appalling numbers of 4th-year undergraduates in the United States cannot name two of the three authors of the Federalist Papers or have any idea what they were about (yet these people are allowed to vote).

    I could go on and on about how it is not a good thing that it is possible to “earn” a 4-year degree in the U.S. but be unable to name even six of Shakespeare’s plays, let alone know any of the good bits. I do not make excuses for, in any way, the lame-brain post-modernist types that have taken over the Humanities departments of many U.S. universities, nor am I tolerant of such folks wining about “scientism,” but these are, I think, separate, though not unrelated, issues. Would Dr. Dawkins be such an eloquent writer, let alone have been elected to the Royal Society of Literature, if he was not exposed to some of the great classics of English Literature? What sort of book would The Ancestor’s Tale have been if, in some parallel universe, it was written by a Richard Dawkins who was ignorant of Chaucer?

    Carl Sagan, in the preface to The Demon-Haunted World, describes how he was, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago,

    “…lucky enough to go through a general education programme devised by Robert M. Hutchins, where science was presented as an integral part of the gorgeous tapestry of human knowledge. It was considered unthinkable for an aspiring physicist not to know Plato, Aristotle, Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski and Freud – among many others. In an introductory science class, Ptolemy’s view that the Sun revolved around the Earth was presented so compellingly that some students found themselves re-evaluating their commitment to Copernicus. The status of the teachers in the Hutchins curriculum had almost nothing to do with their research; perversely – unlike the American university standard of today – teachers were valued for their teaching, their ability to inform and inspire the next generation.”

    Science is not, as many recent defenders of the Humanities have insisted, just another way of “knowing” (whatever that may mean), it is the only way that we, as a species, can reliably learn about the way the world really is and how it works. Science, especially the mind and brain sciences, are illuminating many areas of the human experience, such as the neurological mechanisms underpinning our appreciation of the visual arts, music, and drama. That being said, whatever science may reveal about the mechanisms behind the variety of things that move us does not in any way render the things that move us irrelevant or less worthy of our appreciation. Throughout human history (and to what university departments are history professors typically attached?) what we have deemed most worthy of the civilizations that have come and gone before us are their legacies of art, philosophy, literature, and yes, the halting first steps towards a scientific understanding of our place in space and time that they have left behind for us to build upon.

    The reduced…robustness…of many Humanities departments is not, on this view, because they somehow deserve to be irrelevant. Rather, it is a consequence of, among other things, the perpetual time crunch college students are under to pack as much learning, relevant to their future job prospects, as they can manage into as short a time, and for as low a cost, as possible. A case can also be made that the general anti-intellectualism of the American psyche that enables the sneering dismissal of the evidence for evolution or climate change by saying, “Experts, schmectperts, what do they know?”, also leads people to re-label excellence, in any field of human endeavor, except sports it would seem, as “elitism.” But however much some may wish it so, such re-labeling does not make a virtue of mediocrity.

    • In reply to #8 by Mark N.:

      Appalling numbers of 4th-year undergraduates in the United States cannot name two of the three authors of the Federalist Papers or have any idea what they were about (yet these people are allowed to vote).

      Detailed knowledge of American history is not required to be a sane or rational person. Complaining that people don’t know this stuff must be bad people (or incomplete somehow) is little different from those who complain that anyone who can’t recite football or baseball statistics, or aren’t members of a specific church, must be bad people (or are incomplete somehow).

      You can be a highly qualified scientist without knowing who newton or einstein was. Part of the beauty of science is that it literally doesn’t matter who did what. It is the ability to understand the equations and principles that matters. And the willingness to apply them – including to measuring the ultimate worth of your own personal hobby horse.

      • In reply to #9 by ANTIcarrot:

        In reply to #8 by Mark N.:

        Appalling numbers of 4th-year undergraduates in the United States cannot name two of the three authors of the Federalist Papers or have any idea what they were about (yet these people are allowed to vote).

        Detailed knowledge of American history is not required to be a sane or rational person. Complaining that people don’t know >this stuff must be bad people (or incomplete somehow) is little different from those who complain that anyone who can’t recite >football or baseball statistics, or aren’t members of a specific church, must be bad people (or are incomplete somehow).

        You can be a highly qualified scientist without knowing who newton or einstein was. Part of the beauty of science is that it literally doesn’t matter who did what. It is the ability to understand the equations and principles that matters. And the willingness to apply them – including to measuring the ultimate worth of your own personal hobby horse.

        I have to disagree and the following real-life vignette, which I had written previously, illustrates why.

        I generally try to avoid conversations about religion or politics at work, but a couple of years ago, a conversation started veering towards questions about church/state separation. My co-worker, about ten years my senior, confidently asserted that the Constitution of the United States (CotUS) was filled with references to religion and God. I asked where in the CotUS it mentions God, but he couldn’t say. Having “done my homework” on precisely this question years ago, I was able to inform him that not only is “God” never mentioned in the CotUS, but “religion” is only mentioned twice. He knew about the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment of course, but had no clue at all where the second reference was nor even the slightest hint of what it said. I could tell this was not going to end well, though I did not anticipate the crescendo to which the irony would rise. I cut him a break and told him that besides the First Amendment, the only other reference to religion in the CotUS is in Article Six, Section Three, which says:

        “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (emphasis mine)

        Disbelieving, he whips out his handy-dandy pocket-sized Constitution and hurriedly flips through it to locate Article Six, Section Three. He finds it and is flabbergasted to find I was correct. How his head did not explode from the irony of the whole episode, I do not know. This guy smugly carried around his pocket Constitution, prepared to wield it in battle against any godless, un-American pinko commies that might come his way, but when the time came…he got caught not having done his homework‒and seemed to be completely insensible to the truly epic scale of his fail. He only thought of his pocket-sized CotUS as a weapon with which to smite opponents bearing false witness, failing to realize that bearing false witness is not only the result of malice, but just as frequently is the result of deliberate ignorance, aided and abetted by laziness. He was well and truly hoisted by his own petard (gratuitous Shakespeare reference‒check). The best, and surest, way to not bear false witness is to do your homework, thoroughly, which includes making sure you have your ‘i’s are dotted and your ‘t’s crossed. Needless to say, any credibility he had with me on any subject was gone, and judging from later conversations I overheard, he didn’t learn anything from the experience.

        As the story above illustrates, the more one knows, not only of science, but of the history of human thought and experience, i.e. the Humanities, the better one is equipped to recognize when attempts are made to manipulate them by distorting, or outright falsifying, accounts of what has come before. Rational thinking ** absolutely requires ** that someone ** does their homework ** and the ever-growing specialization of education facilitates the compartmentalization of learning and thought that is the antithesis of rational thinking and intellectual honesty and I do not tolerate it, not in myself, and not in others (it makes me positively dyspeptic and I get the most dreadful headaches).

        • In reply to #12 by Mark N.:

          I see where you’re coming from, but it is a bit risky to deny people privileges simply because they do not know some kinds of trivia. All they need to know, for instance in voting, is which candidate they think will be best suited to presidency, an enterprise fraught with uncertainties at the best of times.

          I think the distinction here is between what’s relevant to your education or not, rather than how broad or detailed it is. Your friend’s problem was not that he was ignorant of the contents of the Constitution of the United States, but that he’d tried to feign knowledge he didn’t have and would have nosedived towards a precise but utterly incorrect conclusion as a result. I don’t think ignorance is a problem in itself, but it is when accompanied by overconfidence and a failure to respect uncertainty.

  7. The humanities half of my college education was exasperating. One time, one professor (she was foreign) did tell one student he wasn’t right, and he spent the rest of the lesson gasping, occasionally mustering up enough air to whimper, “Seriously? ‘No’? How can I be wrong about literature?” Everyone was always right, every upright thing in every book was a phallus, any time two things intersected that was a cross, “composition” lessons were just unstructured, emotional debates, and literature was reduced to a means of “listening” to “voices.”

    It took a few years after college before I regained my interest in learning much of anything, at which point I finally figured out what postmodernism was. I don’t know of any other theory so meek and uninteresting that after living with you for four years it still hasn’t introduced itself, and you’ve lost all interest in anyone’s names anyway.

    Other students complained too; unfortunately I got a sense that it was rather the older professors who were sympathetic. I don’t know anyone currently studying in the humanities, but I’d love to know what it looks like now.

  8. With students paying $20, 30, 40 thousand a year, most are concerned with being able to obtain employment in order to pay back their loans. I think the humanities are important in developing critical thinking skills and I would hate to see them go by the wayside. Personally, I think education is life long and think they need to re-market the presentation of their subjects. I think many would be interested in series of lectures in the evening (even at a library or online) that would not be for credit or graded. Perhaps some colleges need to rethink the idea of a traditional campus in order to keep interest in the humanities.

    By the way, the humanities – art history, history, literature was responsible for me becoming an atheist at 18.

  9. In reply to #9

    “You can be a highly qualified scientist without knowing who newton or einstein was. Part of the beauty of science is that it literally doesn’t matter who did what. It is the ability to understand the equations and principles that matters.”

    This statement may or may be true. But I am confident that in order to be good citizen one needs to have at least a basic understanding of history. For example I would hope that when a citizen votes for a candidate who is friendly or hostile to the state of Israel she or he would at least have a basic understanding of the formation of the Israeli state.

  10. When a citizen in any truly democratic nation casts a ballot, they do so based partly on what they ** think ** the factual state of the world is. What, for instance, a U.S. citizen ** believes ** was in the minds of the framers of the Constitution of the United States (CotUS) when they adopted the Second Amendment (the “right to keep and bear arms” one) profoundly affects their stand on specific candidates and issues. However, an opinion about the Second Amendment that ** fails ** to take into account the wide-spread distrust throughout the former colonies of “standing armies”–leaving as the only option for a military force a “well regulated militia”–is, in the end, is most definitely not “trivial,” and not based on ** reality **. Whether or not the citizen(s) in question realizes it, their belief is intellectually dishonest, or in the religious vocabulary of many Americans, they are bearing “false witness” to the facts.

    ** Just to make myself clear, I am in no way, shape, or form advocating that the fundamental political, civil, or human rights of anyone, anywhere, be officially increased or decreased based on their knowledge of “trivia.” ** In western-style democracies, there are, to my knowledge, no laws prohibiting picking one’s nose in public, nor are they needed. The reason such laws are not needed is because the ** feedback ** received by those inclined to pick their nose in public from their peers unambiguously lets them know that, until they cease doing so, they will be eating their lunch alone and not get invited to the best parties.

    Likewise, in the public square of a democratic society, we can, and in my view, must, practice what Sam Harris has called “conversational intolerance” regarding the falsehood of the “factual” claims others employ to buttress their assertions. Until a citizen steps into a voting booth (figuratively or literally), their opinions, and the “facts” they think support them, must be subjected to the most vigorous and harshest scrutiny that we can bring to bear. A necessary aspect of this strategy is to point out to such misinformed citizens that through their lazy and sloppy attitudes towards facts they are betraying the ideal of informed citizen participation in the government of a free people.

    To accomplish this, it is necessary that universities retain, for instance, scholars of history (a discipline usually considered part of the Humanities) to perform the necessary research that exposes, for instance, the lies put forward by Christian fundamentalists to support their contention that the United States was intended by the Framers to be a “Christian” nation. Another example is dispelling the notion that Hitler was an atheist. It certainly wasn’t a physicist, acting as a physicist, that poured over the historical record that exposes the falsehood of such an assertion, rather, it was the work of numerous professors of history, on the payroll of many universities, to whom we are indebted in this.

    I really do not see why this is so hard to understand.

    • In reply to #16 by Mark N.:

      Likewise, in the public square of a democratic society, we can, and in my view, must, practice what Sam Harris has called “conversational intolerance” regarding the falsehood of the “factual” claims others employ to buttress their assertions.

      No one’s saying we shouldn’t root out pretenders and falsehood wherever they occur. You couldn’t be talking to a more willing choir. Now that I know what you were saying, I agree with you. But you have to admit the passage ANTICarrot quoted from your original reply was giving the wrong impression of what you were trying to say.

Leave a Reply