Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The decline of the humanities, III

“If you want to be sure to learn a lot in college, major in math, science, or engineering rather than in the humanities.”

This was the advice I gave several years ago to my son, and, like so many of his peers, he is indeed pursuing a STEM field rather than English, history, or anthropology. But if college today was like college 30 years ago, I would not have given this advice.

As I’ve written earlier, pursuing the humanities potentially develops both life skills and vocational skills. Writing traditional, analytical essays and getting detailed feedback on them helps you refine your general writing skills, along with your ability to think clearly, analyze carefully, and argue coherently. Reading great literary and analytical works also refines your writing and thinking skills.

Then, of course, there’s the content of particular fields. Studying the past helps you better understand the issues of the present. Studying other political systems and cultures helps you better understand our own. Beyond this, engaging with other times and places, and with well-drawn fictional characters and imagined situations, helps you imagine other worlds, real and hypothetical, far removed from yours. It helps you conceive of other ways of living and being, and understand and empathize with people whose circumstances and/or personalities are vastly different from those closest to you.

But, with junior faculty time-strapped by the tenure treadmill, adjuncts time-strapped by the course load—or second jobs—they must bear in order to make ends meet, and much of the professoriate in general more interested in meta-analysis and intertextuality than in analysis and text construction, today’s college humanities courses are offering less and less training in straight-forward writing, analysis, and argumentation. And they’re offering less and less compelling material about other times, places, and peoples. Here, for example, is what Veryl Klinkenborg, in an NYTimes OpEd this past summer, has observed about writing:

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.
And here, in an OpEd in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, is what Heather Mac Donald has observed about literature courses:
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."  
As Mac Donald notes:
Such defenestrations have happened elsewhere, and long before 2011. But the UCLA coup was particularly significant because the school's English department was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay. Precisely for that reason, it was the most popular English major in the country, enrolling a whopping 1,400 undergraduates.  
The corruption of the humanities, thus, extends far beyond UCLA:
The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.
… It is no wonder, then, that we have been hearing of late that the humanities are in crisis. A recent Harvard report from a committee co-chaired by the school's premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57% of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: "If the problematic 'closure' of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . ." How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?
Contrast this with what the humanities could do for us:
They provide the thing that Faust sold his soul for: knowledge. It is knowledge of a particular kind, concerning what men have done and created over the ages.
The humanities are both a means to important ends:
The American Founders drew on an astonishingly wide range of historical sources and an appropriately jaundiced view of human nature to craft the world's most stable and free republic. They invoked lessons learned from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire in the Constitution's defense. And they assumed that the new nation's citizens would themselves be versed in history and political philosophy.
And an end in themselves:
It is simply better to have escaped one's narrow, petty self and entered minds far more subtle and vast than one's own than never to have done so. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino said that a man lives as many millennia as are embraced by his knowledge of history. One could add: A man lives as many different lives as are embraced by his encounters with literature, music and all the humanities and arts. These forms of expression allow us to see and feel things that we would otherwise never experience—society on a 19th-century Russian feudal estate, for example, or the perfect crystalline brooks and mossy shades of pastoral poetry, or the exquisite languor of a Chopin nocturne.
But how many of these things are seen and felt by today’s professional humanists? And how many of them will suspend their narrow and petty interests in order to give Mac Donald’s words the humanistic reading they deserve?


NickofBrookline said...

In your earlier post, you commented that 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." While I don't disagree, you don't supply evidence that most humanities professors "must follow" this direction in order to get tenure.

Katharine Beals said...

Nick, I should have prefaced that earlier line with "It's my impression that..." I don't have any numbers; if there are some out there, I'd love to see them. My impressions come from what I've heard from friends in modern English, modern literature, art history, and art theory.

Anonymous said...

The big question for the humanities is whether the academy will survive long enough to witness a rebirth of classicism.

Hainish said...

It sounds like many of the students at UCLA preferred a major focused on comparative literature or creative writing--which is fine, but why not simply provide those majors, then?

FedUpMom said...

Gonads and melanin! It's enough to make me want to go back to school.

FedUpMom said...

@Hainish, from the quote it sounds to me like the professors wanted the comp. lit. stuff, not necessarily the students.