Monday, July 1, 2013

The virtues and pitfalls of the humanities

In a recent Times Op-Ed piece entitled The Rise and Fall of the English Major, Verlyn Klinkenborg opens with the following observations:

In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.
Ironically, this illuminates not just one of the biggest reasons why we need humanities courses, but also one of the biggest reasons why they are in decline.

Humanities courses are, indeed, the best venues for college students to learn how to write, and how, in particular, to express and defend a coherent argument. Fewer and fewer students enter college able to write a decent argument or analysis, and even those who pursue non-humanities fields will need to know how to write grants, prospectuses, reports, or research papers in science and technology--which aren't generally assigned by college-level science classes, focusing as they do the basic content that students need before they can do real research in those fields.

But, as Klinkenborg's observations of student writing make clear, even though Klinkenborg himself does not seem to recognize the problem, fewer and fewer college humanities courses are teaching students how to write. One reason is the tenure treadmill: as the competition for tenure-track jobs has drastically risen, the amount of time non-tenured professors have to spend on teaching as drastically declined. Faced with publishing or perishing, few of them prioritize student writing, and many prefer to teach courses the match the narrow topics of their tenure-focused research. 

Related to this research is another big reason for the decline of the humanities: the rise of Post Modernism. This is the fad that most untenured professors must follow to get tenure. It's also, I'm guessing, is where those "strings of [ventriloquized] jargon" and "meta-metastasis" of  "any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon" that Klinkenborg cites are coming from. Post Modernism provides models for this kind of writing; it doesn't provide models for "writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness."

When people cite reasons for the decline in the humanities, they cite students' worries about future employment, the rise of an anti-intellectual, vocational attitude towards school, and the relentless focus on STEM--all valid reasons. But people don't generally credit humanities departments themselves for the role key they've played.

Learning to write isn't the only reason to take humanities courses. The humanities are also the place to engage with ethical issues, immerse oneself in other times and places, learn about other ways of living and being, and heighten one's sensitivity to fellow-human beings who exist under circumstances that are completely different from one's own. Under Post Modernism, where it's all about the Text and the Meta-Analysis, all this "lower-level," non-meta content falls away.

As Klinkenborg observes, the humanities provide the gifts of "clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature;" "the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own;" a view of "the endless coastline of human experience."

At least those are the gifts that the humanities used to provide--gifts that, if they truly wish to reverse their decline, they must start bringing back.


Auntie Ann said...

I would also blame the rubric system which allows students to fill in the blanks and often eliminates the need to think. Our rising 8th grader is having to think about what she is reading for the first time, and she's really struggling. Better to figure it out now, than never to figure it out.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Auntie Ann-- We're having that issue with our 4th grader. The literature program we uses actually makes them write essays and use examples from the text, but she's having a hard time getting it because... it;s so much easier just to give random opinions with nothing to back them up!

I figure that if we start now, we MAY have her in shape by high school.