QotD: We’ve Got What You Want Edition

In the NYT today, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a bit about what the humanities have to offer. He notes the decline:

Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.

In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number.

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.

He sees the roots of the problem:

There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.

But then he points out what “experience, though non auctoritee” has taught him, he gets to the QotD:

Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Thank you, sir.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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3 Responses to QotD: We’ve Got What You Want Edition

  1. Huck says:

    And on that QotD, and the sentiment behind it, I am 100% in agreement. Frankly, the main outcome of a degree in the Humanities is not the mastery of content, but is (or should be) (1) the ability to think critically and (2) the ability to express this thinking elegantly and concisely on paper (or its digital equivalent).

  2. Jeff says:

    Those second and third points in the second block quote are crucial. I quit my decade-long adjunct gig when an assistant dean who was a Ph.D-holding classicist and art historian demanded that I come up with bullet points outlining the “workplace relevance” of the one medieval lit course they hadn’t cut from the catalog. If we can’t count on the liberal-arts types who’ve moved up into the bureaucracy to defend the importance of the humanities, there’s no way the business-school dean or the football coach are going to give a damn.

    (On the up side, I did get to witness a biological and theological marvel: a scholar whose body remained fully animated, even lifelike, long after her soul had departed.)

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