Tag Archives: humanities

Don’t Kill the National Endowment for the Humanities

The National Endowment for the Humanities is again in the news as a possible casualty of the new administration’s effort to cut costs. Conservatives should fight for the agency.

Conservatives worry that humanities scholars have turned away from enduring questions to embrace political fads. But under Bruce Cole’s administration, from 2001 to 2009, the NEH established the Enduring Questions program. Consider this description of the program’s concerns: “enduring questions persist across historical eras, regions, and world cultures . . . . They transcend time and place but are also relevant to our lives today. Enduring questions have more than one plausible or compelling answer, allow for dialogue across generations, and inspire genuine intellectual pluralism.”

The program, inaugurated in 2008, lasted through this year and supported courses that brought such questions, and great texts that consider them, to the attention of students. I detail my own participation in the program here. What’s not to like?

In 2002, under Cole, the NEH launched the We the People initiative in direct response to a concern Cole shares with many conservatives, that Americans know too little about their history and the principles of the Founding. As Cole explains, The initiative “support[ed] scholarship on American history and culture . . . which help[ed] spread and deepen public understanding of founding principles and their ramifications.” The We the People initiative also helped “teachers improve their subject matter knowledge” and to “preserve archives.” The program lasted until 2012.

The NEH has inspired some extraordinary and valuable work, along with some silly stuff, across multiple administrations. There is no question that the NEH has, on average, moderated the excesses of the academic humanities. The Cole administration, in particular, shows that an NEH chairman moved by love of the humanities, not partisan zeal, can do great things.

Humanities, Pretty Much Dead, Are Mostly a Hunt for Racism and Sexism

A number of prominent liberal intellectuals, such as Leon Wieseltier, acknowledge that the humanities are in trouble. There “really is a cultural crisis,” he said at a recent Aspen Ideas Festival. This is an improvement over the mass denial of a few years ago, when the standard retort to conservatives went something like this: “You just don’t like the direction the humanities have taken” or worse: “You old-fashioned types are angry that the humanities are no longer a Eurocentric dead-white-male thing—get over it.”

But when the politically-correct president of an Ivy League university recounts how far the humanities have fallen at her school, as Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust did at the same festival, it’s hard to dismiss the thesis.  The numbers Faust cited for Harvard are astounding.  Currently, she said, about 14 percent of Harvard undergraduates major in a humanities field.  That’s higher than the national rate, but it’s down from the 25 percent rate at Harvard when Faust started her tenure as president nine years ago.  Most of the withdrawal, she noted, was due to students heading toward the hard sciences (not the social sciences).  When it comes to enrollment in humanities courses in general at Harvard, the trend there is downward as well, a drop of ten percent over the same period of time.

Related: Are the Battered Humanities Worth Saving?

We can add to the testimony of liberal leaders at the administrative level a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about literature professors who think that literary studies have become so cynical and paranoid that they are turning people away.

When English turned into a practice of reading literature for signs of racism, sexism, and ideology, it lost touch with why youths pick up books in the first place, said University of Virginia Professor Rita Felski.  And Duke professor Toril Moi told the Chronicle reporter, “If you challenge the idea of suspicion as the only mode of reading, you are then immediately accused of being conservative in relation to those politics.

And added to that story is the pile-up of reports demonstrating declining majors and enrollments, along with a dreadful job market for recent PhDs (see here, which shows that, in 2014, nearly half of all humanities doctoral recipients —45.7 percent—had no employment commitments:  We can’t dismiss the thesis of decay any more.  We may disagree about the causes of the slide, but everyone agrees that we need to rebuild and reinvigorate the fields.

Related: More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

The San Diego Union-Tribune recently carried a sad story on one attempt to revive the humanities, at the University of California, San Diego. The program foregrounds social themes, not works of beauty and genius.  The photo that introduces the story shows a panel speaking to a room of 30 or 40 people. The caption states the topic: “Challenging Conversations: Race and State Violence. “The question it raises is: Do the organizers really believe that an event such as this one will draw more first-year students into English, Art History, Classics, and French?

The problem isn’t just that discussions of race, violence, and politics have become so predictable and joyless.  It is that nothing in identity-focused discourse steers youths toward the humanities instead of toward the social sciences and fine arts.  If there is a campus symposium on how race played out in the last election, there is no reason to think that a humanistic approach to it will follow.  It sounds more like Political Science or Sociology than English or History.  So does the other event on the “News” page, “Community, Arts, and Resistance.”

The standard response to this disciplinary distinction is to insert humanities materials into the act.  Yes, the professors say, we talk about race and class and other topics traditionally at the center of the social sciences, but in our case, we examine the representations of them in novels and movies and culture in general.  This is not a step away from reality, they contend, because literature, art, music, and media do what is called cultural work.  They shape norms, impart values, construct stereotypes, and reinforce ideologies.  Analyzing humanities works, then, is essential to the understanding of society.

Maybe—but the claim is beside the point.  In this case, that is, regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.

First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf.  A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests.  History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest.  If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds.  Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.

Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials.  They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity).  It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues.  They accept them as part of the work, certainly.  But those issues are not the source of inspiration.  The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film.  It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . .  Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.

And so when the UCSD project breaks the humanities up four areas—Equity, diversity, and inclusion; global arts and humanities; public arts and humanities; and digital arts and humanities—one has little hope.  Why is equity at the top, especially when we consider how much great art emerged out of unequal societies?  Why invoke the bland divisions of global, public, and digital?

Here are the sentences that follow the four-part breakdown on the Institute’s web page: Through these wide-ranging and cross-cutting themes, we view the arts and humanities as a vibrant collection of different fields—including the humanistic social sciences and STEM fields—that interrogate the humanistic enterprise from complimentary [sic] and sometimes disorienting perspectives. The IAH thus values difference, cultivates exchange and prioritizes transformative ways of thinking and working together.

The language here is deadeningly abstract — “cross-cutting . . . interrogate . . . prioritize”—the very opposite of a humanistic turn of mind.  The statement goes on to claim that the Institute offers “exciting programs,” but where in this conception is the excitement of the haunting search for Anna on the island in L’Avventura and the uncanny sequence of images in the last five minutes of L’Eclisse?  Does this ethnic/politics focus for the humanities make space for the grand spectacle of Act II of Aida?  Does it allow for Nietzsche’s fiery words about nihilism in The Will to Power?  Does it respect the dark sublimity of the last paragraph of The Dead?

These are the things that lure students to the humanities and keep them there, not this adversarial social framework that turns the humanities into sociology for people who like art.

Why History Courses Are Declining

A few years ago, when critics of academia warned that the humanities were sinking, academics shot back with data showing that enrollments were steady and the departments were doing just fine.  They also sprinkled smug remarks about Chicken-Little conservatives who were just upset that the hegemony of the traditional canon had crumbled.

We don’t need to answer this ad hominem.  The evidence speaks for us.  Earlier this month, the American Historical Association released a survey of 123 history departments and found a 7.6 percent decline in enrollments over a two-year period, 2012-13 to 2014-15.  Enrollment slipped in 96 departments and rose in only 27 departments.  In absolute numbers, enrollments in those schools went from 390,000 to 360,000.

This finding expands on the finding noted a few months earlier by the Association that the numbers of history majors dropped significantly from 2013 to 2014.  At the same time, the Association reported that the number of earned doctorates in history in 2014 maintained a steady trend of growth. In other words, we have more history professors to teach fewer history students.

There is an irony to this decline.  When I started graduate school in the 1980s, history had just become THE loaded term in the field of English.  It had a particular moral-political force.  What history was claimed to do was this: to reveal traditional values and concepts as historical constructs, not objective realities.  The difference between high culture and popular culture collapsed, it was alleged, as soon as we put it into a historical context in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which an elite tried to distinguish itself from a rising middle class.

The literary canon could be shown to be a fairly recent creation, not a sacred corpus from time immemorial.  Western civilization could be dislodged from the center of the history of the world, and American Exceptionalism could be revealed in all its political tactics and demythologized.

Everyone, then, was to study history.  “Always historicize!” was one slogan of the time.  Deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, reader-response criticism, and formalism no longer had any cachet.  Instead, the trend was New Historicism and historically-inflected political criticism (Edward Said’s Orientalism was the model) and Foucault, whose archival historical work gave his speculations about sexuality and politics great authority.

Many of my peers were mighty exhilarated by it all.  They wielded history as if it were a hammer to take down the idols of humanitas, beauty and Great Books and high art.  But undergraduates don’t seem to feel the same inspiration.  The humanities are, indeed, declining, and it has happened on their watch, the liberals and leftists who run the place.  They insist on the centrality of historical understanding, but they are losing in the competitive terrain of the campus marketplace.  Eighteen- and 19-year-olds are increasingly uninterested in what the history professors have to say.  They are voting with their feet.

More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

By Mark Bauerlein

In recent years, several critics have chided those of us who say the humanities are fading by citing statistics on undergraduate enrollments that show no real declines at all since the 1980s.

One reason for the rebuke is that many arguing the “crisis” do so on the basis of intellectual decline, specifically, the rise of identity politics in the humanities, which have often made the disciplines a joke across the quad. (See here.)

Liberal defenders of race-class-gender-sexuality-disability-queerness-etc. studies don’t like to admit that their enthusiasms haven’t brought more respect to the fields, much less any material gains in recent years. And so, they call upon the numbers and sprinkle smug remarks against the other side among them, as in this piece by a past president of the Modern Language Association.

But the bad news keeps coming. The Job List of the Modern Language Association came out this month, and for the third straight year, the openings declined significantly. The number of jobs in English (1,015) for 2014-15 fell 3 percent, while all the foreign languages (949) saw a decline of 7.6 percent.

If we go back to 2009-10, English jobs this year fall 7.7 percent, while foreign languages are 7.3 percent lower. When we pull out tenure-track positions, things look worse. This year, 67.3 percent of the jobs available are tenure-track, a tiny rise of 0.8 percent from last year, but still way below the number of doctorates awarded in any calendar year. For the foreign languages, tenure-track jobs make up only 50.4 percent of the whole list, a slip of 2.1 percentage points from 2013-14. In previous years, tenure-track positions made up 75-80 percent of English jobs and 60-65 percent of foreign language jobs. Clearly, schools are shifting more and more teaching duties to adjunct positions and one-year lectureships.

What this means is that the build-up of bitter, frustrated job seekers continues. Many of those PhDs from 2010, 2011, 2012 . . . who didn’t get tenure-track jobs in past years are still out there sending applications to every job listing that comes close to their expertise, creating a pool of thousands of qualified people for hundreds of jobs. Tell them that the humanities are doing fine.

There are two other trends to factor into this dismal picture. We had a crushing decline in job openings after the 2008 economic crisis. As the Inside Higher Ed story notes, “The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10.” People expected that some good financial years for private university endowments and public university state budgets would yield a steady recovery.

But, as you see above, that hasn’t happened. The other trend that should have spurred tenure-track hiring was the retirement of Boomer professors. Many of those people hired in the 70s have lingered in their posts beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, holding their posts through the 00s. They are now leaving, but it appears they aren’t being replaced with regular faculty lines. I suspect this is because the number of majors in the departments doesn’t justify their full replacement.

This is a hard fact that the-humanities-are-doing-just-fine crowd can’t spin out of existence.


Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

COLLEGE SHOULDN’T BE JOB TRAINING, BUT…

Like many commentators and candidates, Fareed Zakaria, the eloquent host of CNN’s GPS, has turned out a new book on higher education. In Defense of a Liberal Education laments that today’s students are pressured into thinking of college as a time to prepare for the global marketplace, discouraged from dreaming big, and told to acquire the skills they will need for the workplace. It is “openness” and “the ability for the mind to range widely and pursue interests freely” that Zakaria not only took advantage of as an undergraduate at Yale, but that he also sees as being “inherent in liberal education.”

Despite his aversion to the vocational drift of higher education over the past several decades, Zakaria’s recommended version of liberal education seems just as instrumental—a means to employment and viability in the new “global economy.” He maintains that what it does best is teach students skills—critical thinking and communication skills—how to write (which for him is a process of thinking), how to speak, and how to learn. It teaches them “how to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas.” It teaches them new methods and approaches to problems “of the world we live in.”

At one point he sounds like an admissions counselor for a liberal arts college, claiming that fields like art history and anthropology are not a waste of time because they “require the intensive study of several languages and cultures, an eye for aesthetics, and the ability to translate from one medium or culture to another.” Such skills “could be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age” because they force a person “to look at people and objects from a variety of perspectives” and make him or her “more creative and aware.” He then pays customary tribute to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who studied Greek in high school and psychology at Harvard. So art history, perhaps the study most heavily derided as pointless these days, turns out to be unexpectedly useful for future employment.

Zakaria praises the “open-ended exploration of knowledge,” yet this exploration keeps showing up as a useful component of job training. “Technology and liberal education go hand in hand in business today.” So college graduates “have to be at the cutting edge of design, marketing, and social networking. . . . You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the word. But you can’t sell it for three hundred dollars unless you have built a story around it.” In other words, they should use liberal education to serve “capitalism, globalization, and technology.”

This argument is bound to grate on those with a less commercial view of liberal education. At its best such education cultivates intellect, judgment, good character and disposition, and above all else awareness of one’s ignorance and limitations. It is more concerned about asking the right questions than it is in finding the right answers–the antithesis of the outcomes-oriented, results-driven American mindset. If done well, it puts people on the path toward leading a good life. As Mark Van Doren wrote more than sixty years ago in Liberal Education—a more learned and convincing defense of the subject—its “prime occupation” is “with the skills of being.”

These skills are very different from the instrumental skills of writing, speaking, and learning that Zakaria maintains is the end product of a liberal education. I am not suggesting that they are unimportant; rather, that they are requisite for a liberal education and should be obtained in high school or through general education—which Zakaria confounds with liberal education.

To write well, students must know how to think; to learn to think, they must know how to read; to learn to read, not for amusement or for paltry convenience, but in “a high sense,” as Thoreau says, as “a noble intellectual exercise” they must possess curiosity and the desire to see and think beyond their immediate surroundings and concerns. Only then will they have been properly prepared and primed for what a liberal education has to offer: nuance, complexity, beauty, alternative models and examples of how to live one’s life.

The fact that today’s students are not “animated by big arguments” or do not “make big speeches about grand philosophical issues” or “stay up late arguing about Nietzsche or Marx or Tolstoy,” doesn’t bother Zakaria. “Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics. And that means there is less scope for grand theorizing, fewer intense late-night bull sessions, less stirring eloquence at the student forums and political unions”—which for Zakaria is the chief difference between the “complete experience” of a liberal education and taking “pre-professional and general education” courses in a MOOC.

Today’s students are simply products of our time—and it’s not their fault. They might be writing apps instead of poetry, “but that’s just an adjustment for the age.” Their icons are “entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople. Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are far more important symbols than any politician today, and they occupy the space that iconic political figures did in earlier eras. The young reflect today’s realities.”

Unfortunately these realities are the bourgeois concerns and values that dominate American life: making a living, creating a home, raising a family, worshipping technology, progress, and advances in medicine that make life comfortable and prolong our lifespan. Zakaria asks, “Are the issues that students today think about less important than those of war and peace? Are their heroes inferior to those of past ages?” Students who have never read Homer or Thucydides, let alone Nietzsche, Marx, Tolstoy, will never know. The idea of liberal education once meant taking students out of the cave. In Zakaria’s version, it is the cave.


J. M. Anderson is dean of the School of Business and Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Cobleskill

Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

Barzun.jpg

“Full of years.” I
am not sure I know of anyone who better qualified for that Biblical epithet
than Jacques Barzun, who died last week at the magnificent age of 104.  Born in France in 1907, Barzun had been a
presence on the American intellectual and academic scene since the 1950s. From
his perch at Columbia University, where he collaborated with the critic Lionel
Trilling on a humanities course than deeply influenced a generation of
students, Barzun (like Trilling) was part of the intellectual conscience of his
age.  He was a public intellectual before
that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the
1960s. His scholarly work in subjects like French poetry consistently won plaudits.
Writing in 1991 about Barzun’s Essay on French Verse, the poet William Jay
Smith noted that  although “there have
been other treatises on French versification for the English reader,”  “none has been so thorough, so well reasoned,
so free of academic jargon, and so available as this one.”  “It is amazing,” Smith went on, “that
Professor Barzun, now in his eighties, should have produced so youthful and
vigorous a book, an objective study that is at the same time so personal a
document.” That sense of amazement regularly greeted Barzun’s work in the last
decades of his life.  He was the author
of more than 30 books, and his magnum opus, From
Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present
, wasn’t
published until 2000, when Barzun was 93.

Continue reading Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

Pleasure Island

Plato_Silanion_Musei_Capitolini_MC1377.jpg

The kids! The boys! They’re all donkeys! – Jiminy Cricket

Beloit College recently released its annual “Mindset List,” the findings of a yearly survey which attempts to take stock of the cultural touchstones that each generation of college freshman is, or is not, familiar with. Most of the observations are benign: “They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it,” for instance. But, predictably, at least one of the observations on the list is distressing to those of us carrying the fire of the Western intellectual tradition. The List claims that “The Biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” ”the writing on the wall,” ”good Samaritan,” and “the promised land” are unknown to most of them.”

Why does it matter if the Class of 2016 is ignorant of the source of these references? Educationally, such unfamiliarity is symptomatic of higher education’s drift, nay, dog-paddle, away from tradition of the Great Books, the time-honored mechanisms for defining and explaining Western thought and virtue, what the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.”  In earlier times, we might have taken hope in the university’s liberal arts tradition to remedy this sort of deficit. Currently, however, there is little hope that the American post-secondary system is doing much to stem the tide of ignorance. 

Continue reading Pleasure Island

Universities Are Vocational Schools

Why do students go to college? A new poll has a one-word
answer: money. That’s one of the findings in a broad Gallup survey of college admissions officers done for Inside
Higher Ed
. The admissions officers seem to believe that those planning to
attend college view it largely as a signaling device that directs the best and
brightest young Americans to the best and highest-paying jobs. It is not
primarily about acquiring knowledge (“human capital”), critical learning or
leadership skills, or better perceiving the difference between right and wrong,
but more about achieving the American Dream of a comfortable, moderately
affluent life.

To cite one statistic, 99 percent of admission directors
at public four-year colleges agreed or strongly agreed that “parents of
applicants place high importance on the ability of degree programs to help
students get a good job.” With regards to the prospective students themselves,
“only” 87 percent of the counselors agree that getting a good job is
important/very important.  Most of the
counselors also agree, at all forms of higher education institutions, that
their schools are putting more emphasis on job placement.

Continue reading Universities Are Vocational Schools

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

The University of Chicago Chooses Decline

The University of Chicago hit two mile-markers in its
decade-long transformation this week. The first, generally celebrated by
students, alumni, and their parents, is a new high-water mark in the school’s US News & World Report ranking. The
University now shares the fourth spot with Columbia, rising from 12 a few years
ago and leapfrogging Stanford, Penn, and MIT, among others.

The second is a reduction in the graduation requirements.
Starting next quarter, graduates will not have to pass a swimming test and either
pass a fitness test or take three PE classes to graduate. In an email to
students, the Dean of the College cited a rationale steeped in the lingo of a
marketing consultant:

The change in the College
physical education requirement occurs in the context of a larger decision by
the University to reimagine and expand our fitness and athletics programs to
meet growing demand and the diverse needs of our community.

These may seem like unrelated incidents, but they reflect
a massive paradigm shift in the way the University sees itself. Since it wants donations
from trustees who prize vacuous but still prestigious measures of schooling
excellence like the US News rankings,
the University has goaded itself into playing the rankings game.

US News‘s calculations
consider prospective students’ view of the institution as measured by the
admissions rate. But should  we determine a university’s quality based on
the preferences of seventeen year olds?
 The university is ultimately supposed
to shape its young and not be shaped by its young. It is supposed to tell the
naïve what is worth studying and what it takes to be a human being and a
citizen of good character.

The aim of increasing its ranking and pleasing high-schoolers
also inspired the University to pare down its Common Core in the mid-Nineties.  Though the Core still is large enough so that
the empiricist studies ethics and the ethicist empirics, the University threw
out the very notion behind the Core: a university only completes its duty if it
teaches its students several things.

The Core now consists of distribution requirements that
flatter young people’s instinct to set their own course. The humanities
requirement can be fulfilled by what is essentially an introductory linguistics
class, the social science requirement by an introduction to psychology class.
No one needs to read the classics of either field. Indeed, students must
consciously choose the courses which are watered-down relics of the traditional
path

Swimming and fitness requirements are, like a set Core
curriculum, decidedly uncool and anachronistic. The real argument for the
requirements–that human excellence is excellence in mind and body–doesn’t stand a chance when pitted against teenagers who
feel that such requirements are onerous or just plain weird.

This week the University got its best evidence yet that
its strategy is working. Seventeen year olds like what the University offers
and increasingly want to spend a few years in Hyde Park. What they do there,
though, is increasingly anyone’s guess. Ten years after the University of
Chicago made it possible  to hold its
bachelors degree without ever examining a page of either Plato or Shakespeare,
it now makes it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever exerting a
muscle. Decline is a choice, and the University of Chicago has made its choice.

Here’s How the Scholar Disappears

Political scientists Gary King (Harvard University) and Maya Sen (University of Rochester) recently produced a working paper titled, “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” Everyone interested in higher education should read it. The paper is instructive for those who want to understand how little most academics understand the crisis universities face. The problems with the paper are numerous, but I will just focus on one–their ambivalence about learning, or what they call “education.”

King and Sen uncritically assume that “education” is a unit of computer data. They define the purpose of the “modern university” as the “creation, preservation, and distribution of knowledge,” like how computers produce and distribute data to consumers. University research generates knowledge, and professors then distribution that knowledge in university classes which, until recently, were “the most sought way to get educated.”

However, the university is experiencing competition from the Internet and for-profit schools, and it may lose its ability to provide knowledge, especially considering how the University of Phoenix has apps (apps!) that put that knowledge on smartphones. Imagine the efficiency of getting educated in between rounds of Food Ninja.

The metaphor completely misrepresents how learning works; it is not a piling up of data until amount equals the common measure for “educated.” What King and Sen do reveal is their ambivalence about education itself. They say nothing of how the financial troubles of universities might deprive generations of a liberal education, as Joseph Epstein fears. Their ambivalence explains the relatively low esteem with which Harvard holds teaching, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus detail. Harvard faculty place greater emphasis on research, largely for professional and institutional reasons. As a result, we should not be surprised that teaching suffered, since it amounts to an obstacle to research. Unsurprisingly, King and Sen recommend that traditional universities compete with Internet-based alternatives by putting undergraduates to work in faculty research projects, which is something University of Phoenix Online and Udacity cannot offer.

The solution is strange. It is hard to imagine luring students into college with promises of data coding, regression analysis, and grant-writing; worse, this solution is simply admitting defeat–universities are no longer places of learning but training facilities in quantitative methods. As Martin Heidegger prophesied in “The Age of the World View”:

The decisive development of the modern business character of science, therefore, forms people of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is replaced by the individual engaged in research projects. This, rather than the pursuit of scholarship, gives his work its keen atmosphere. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Besides, he is always moving about. He does business at meetings and gets information at congresses. He contracts to work for commissions from publishers, who now help to determine what books must be written.”

On a final note, the recommendation that undergraduates simply start apprenticing as research assistants comes at an unusual time for those like King and Sen, who advocate quantitative social science research. NassimTaleb, Jim Manzi, and Emanuel Derman are part of growing movement of former “quants” skeptical of the attempts to quantify human behavior and afraid of the dangers that come from living and governing as if such quantification were possible. Increasingly, the moment seems right for a heartfelt defense of the university as a place of learning, tradition, and contemplation. There is no app for that.

Capitalism and Western Civilization: Liberal Education

CapitalismEducation pic.jpgSpeaking of business and management majors, Douglas Campbell and James E. Fletcher argue
in A Better Way to Educate Professionals that their students “should have a strong base in the traditional liberal arts and the physical sciences….to effectively work with people to understand and solve problems as well as to accomplish individual, organizational, and social goals.”

The  management consultant Peter Drucker agrees, writing in The New Realities (1989):

Management… deals with action and application and its tests are
results. This makes it a technology. But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development–and this makes it a humanity. So does its concern with, and impact on, social structure and the community. Indeed, as everyone has learned who, like this author, has been working with managers of all kinds of institutions for long years, management is deeply involved in spiritual concerns–the nature of man, good and evil.

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art–“liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.

For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through which the “humanities” will again acquire recognition, impact, and respect. 

The Romans educated their governing elites in the artes liberales, the
“liberal arts.” To them, artesmeant skills and liberales referred
to a free man. Liberal arts were originally something like “skills of the
citizen elite” or “skills of the ruling class,” who were expected to debate and
decide on issues of public policy. The Renaissance deplored ignorance and
exalted the power of the educated mind. For its elite, it stressed education in
the skills and prudence necessary to be successful in a life of work and to be
a public-spirited citizen and member of the ruling class. The Renaissance
demonstrated the need for balance in the knowledge provided by science,
humanistic studies, and religion. In today’s sophisticated capitalist economy,
business or corporate executives and managers constitute an economic ruling
class that should be provided a similar education and capabilities.

But our universities have adopted an orthodoxy that dismisses a priori as
“white male ideology,” the very idea of an educated person, of a cultivated
human being provided with broad and humanistic knowledge of the kind esteemed in the Renaissance. The liberal arts have largely been eliminated from
education, replaced by the social sciences and postmodern multiculturalism,
with their animus against Western civilization and objective knowledge.
Postmodernism in the academy still vehemently denies the efficacy of science,
the value of reason and humanistic studies, and the need for religion and its
moral precepts, while fostering the unrealistic and immoderate illusions of our
academic and college-educated elites.

In Post-Capitalist Society (1993), Drucker discusses the clash between postmodern multiculturalism and the classical Western education in our colleges and universities. 

A motley crew of post-Marxists, radical feminists, and other “antis” argues that there can be no such thing as an educated person–the
position of those new nihilists, the “Deconstructionists in this group assert
that there can be only educated persons with each sex, each ethnic group, each race, each “minority” requiring its own separate culture and a separate–indeed an isolationist–educated person….These people are mainly concerned with the humanities….Their target is…the universalism that is at the very core of the concept of the educated person….

The opposing camp–we might call them the “Humanists”–also scorns
the present system.  But it does so because it fails to produce a
universally educated person. The Humanist critics demand a return to the
nineteenth century, to the “liberal arts,” the “classics.”…They are in a direct line of descent from the Hutchins-Adler “Return to Pre-Modernity.”
 

Both sides, alas, are wrong. The knowledge society must have
at its core the concept of the educated person. It will have to be a universal concept, precisely because the knowledge society is a society of knowledges and because it is global–in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology,its central issues, and above all, in its information. Post-capitalist society requires a unifying force. It requires a leadership group, which can focus local, particular, separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, a common concept of excellence, and on mutual respect.
 

The…knowledge society…thus needs exactly the opposite of what
Deconstructionists, radical feminists, and anti-Westerners propose. It needs the very thing they totally reject: a universally educated person.
 

Drucker argues that the productive use of knowledge now determines the competitive position of countries as well as companies (see my earlier article Knowledge Workers). More than possessing a bridge to the classical past, the educated person also “needs to be able to bring his or her knowledge to bear on the present, not to mention molding the future.” He adds:

The Western tradition will, however, still have to be at the
core, if only to enable the educated person to come to grips with the present, let alone the future. The future…cannot be “non-Western.” Its material civilization and its knowledges all rest on Western foundations: Western science; tools and technology; production; economics; Western-style finance and banking. None of these can work unless grounded in an understanding and acceptance of Western ideals and the entire Western tradition.
 

This is the very point that Steve Balch emphasizes in Metamorphosis: 

What happened in, and through, the Western world during the last
three hundred years is unique in the history of civilization. Western
civilization is not just another civilization. It represents a metamorphosis in
humanity’s estate. The other civilizations of the world have been reborn in,
and through, that of the West

Tragically, the kind of liberal education that Drucker recommends and Campbell, Fletcher, and NAS seek for future managers is no longer available in today’s academy.Campbell and Fletcher note that the saturation of the liberal arts “with
Marxist doctrine is particularly confounding. Marxism, radical-collectivism and
hostility to free enterprise are the antithesis of the traditional liberal
arts’ search for truth, virtue, beauty and the meaning of human existence, and
its commitment to intellectual freedom and personal choice.”

Moreover, the NAS report The Vanishing West demonstrates that education in the Western foundations sought by Drucker is no longer provided at most colleges and universities. Peter Wood observes in Epic Battles: “The
report brims with the relevant details. But the basic picture is clear and
simple. American higher education has by and large taken itself out of the
business of teaching undergraduate students any kind of orderly overview of
Western civilization.”

Thus, academia fails to provide the kind of enlightenment that Drucker considers
essential for management and business professionals. Instead, as Jay Schalin
notes in The Reopening of the American Mind, they are smothered in a “postmodernist fog that clouds the mind and renders graduates unemployable for all but rudimentary functions.” Ironically, the nation’s economic competitiveness is the worse for lack of a proper liberal arts education at America’s colleges and universities.

The changes recommended by NAS to restore that education need urgently to be
implemented.

The Honorable William H.Young served as Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy from November 1989 to January 1993.. 

More Depressing News from Duke

For insight into
the corruption of the modern academy, look no further than Heather MacDonald’s extraordinary article on the
recent controversy at Duke. Two Duke professors, Peter
Arcidiacono and Ken Spenner,
and a graduate student, Esteban Aucejo, produced a paper showing that
African-American students at Duke disproportionately migrate from science and
engineering majors to less challenging majors in the humanities. (Now that the
Supreme Court has granted cert to the Fisher
case, evidence that racial preferences in admissions harms even those who
receive the preferential slots will likely be receiving much more attention.)
The reaction was sadly predictable: outraged “activist” students rallied around
identity politics; race-baiting faculty members displayed their indifference to
the truth; and cowardly administrators seemed terrified of being labeled a
racist. Also unsurprising was the fact that none of these critics challenged
the accuracy of the data that the paper presented.

Continue reading More Depressing News from Duke

Three Cheers for Useless Education

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Several years ago Harper’s Magazine ran two articles on “The Uses of Liberal Education.” One article, subtitled “As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor,” was written by Earl Shorris, and describes how poor and underprivileged members of our society were eager to study the great books and benefited from them. He devised a course of study in the humanities for people aged 18-35 from the lower east side of New York City. His goal was to prove–both to the students and to himself–that the great books of the Western tradition belong to everyone, not simply to a few rich people in selective colleges and universities.

The other essay, subtitled “As lite entertainment for bored college students,” was written by Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia, and pretty much speaks for itself. Edmundson describes privileged students who have access to a first-rate education at a top-notch university. “What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality. They help out at the soup kitchen and volunteer to tutor poor kids to get stripes on their resumes.” More than anything, Edmundson adds, is that they “seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves.” In one instance he writes about students who would come to his office to tell him how embarrassed or intimidated they felt when he corrected them in front of other students in class. When he asked one of them if he should let a major factual error go by so as to save the student discomfort, the student said that it was a tough question and he’d have to think about it.

Continue reading Three Cheers for Useless Education

Will English Departments Begin to Fade?

The executive council of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the leading organization for English and foreign-language professors, issued a statement on Wednesday decrying the rising debt levels of college students. Well, sure, who isn’t against student debt? But I think that the MLA statement is more than just pious boilerplate. It’s a statement of panic–that pretty soon both undergraduates and graduate students in language departments and elsewhere in the humanities are going to realize that their degrees are mostly worthless, especially when financed by mountainous loans. The MLA seems to realize that sometime very soon the bottom is going to fall out of all those English departments with their course offerings in such subjects as “Theorizing Intersectionality” and “Insecure: The Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism.” Students will simply vanish from humanities classrooms (many are leaving already), and departments will implode.

Continue reading Will English Departments Begin to Fade?

After Graduation, Get a Job Immediately, or Else

One of the frequent complaints one hears from humanities professors and figures in the “softer” social sciences is that students and a growing number of higher education officials, consultants, and commentators regard college more and more as a job-training program.  While driving across the country this week, I heard Rush Limbaugh declare that the only point of going to college was to find a job—nothing about general knowledge and skills that go with citizenship and being an adult of taste and discernment and historical understanding.

The economic crisis makes their workforce-readiness arguments even stronger, and this story in The Fiscal Times adds an aggravating component to it.  It bears the headline “The Lost Grads: Born into the Wrong Job Market,” and it focuses on graduating classes of '08-'10 who left school only to find that employers weren’t hiring.  The result, according to the Economic Policy Institute: college grads under 25 have an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, while older grads have a rate of 4.4 percent.

Continue reading After Graduation, Get a Job Immediately, or Else

Another Blow to the Humanities

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published the results of education.” The numbers should make faculty members tremble, and some of the anonymous comments, too.  In sum, CFO regard the professors as the biggest roadblock to adjustments necessary to handle current financial problems.

When asked about “The one strategy that CFO’s would pick to cut costs or raise more revenue, if they did not have to worry about the consequences among constituents,” they offered the following answers.

—–Increase teaching loads: 38%
—–Increase tuition: 19%
—–Eliminate tenure: 17%
—–Hire more adjunct faculty members: 11%
—–Increase enrollment by changing admissions standards: 4%
—–Cut student services: 3%
—–No answer: 2%

 That more than one-third of CFOs place “increase teaching loads” at the top of the list, making it #1 by a long margin, means that something along those lines is bound to happen at institutions across the country in the coming years.  A 2-2 teaching load, with classes of 12 students, simply doesn’t make sense to CFOs unless that professor has ways of using his or her time outside the classroom to bring money into the university by other means.

The humanities in particular are vulnerable.  The nature of humanistic study requires small classes and, at its best, many tutorial sessions in office hours.  (You can’t work on students’ ideas and writings in a class of 100.)  To CFOs, the model looks grossly inefficient, and they have a steady trend to support them.  The trend is that the humanities are increasingly becoming a minor part of the campus.  Less than five percent of annual bachelor’s degrees are granted in English and all the foreign languages combined.  The old image of college as roughly an equal measure of humanities and of sciences is obsolete.

This makes it harder for campus humanists to resist pressures from the administration to become more efficient and more productive in the delivery of educational services.  One can imagine humanities professors reacting to the survey as an insidious expression of the bean-counting mentality, but expressions of disgust won’t help their case one bit.  Unless they learn to stimulate more demand for their “product” (even though they hate the language of consumerism), they will have no ammunition that works in the corridors of administrative power.

What’s the Point of Academic Conferences?

At research universities in the United States, most departments in the humanities have a travel budget that supports professional activities for their faculty members.  Most of it goes to help professors attend academic conferences and deliver a paper to colleagues and attend sessions as an audience member as well.  For a department of 30 people, the amount may run to $50,000 or more, enough to fund at least one trip by every individual who requests support.

From what I’ve seen of the conferences, though, the amount of genuine research inquiry that is shared and remembered is negligible.  Yes, some papers are strong, but more of them are thin, half-hearted, or hastily-composed.  Those that are strong are often too dense to follow, especially when they have to share time with three other papers at the panel.  This is not to mention, moreover, those sessions that are attended by less than ten people. 

No, the main purpose of the meetings, it seems to me, is to provide academics scattered around the country but in the same general field the chance to gather and re-connect.  The actual research preparation they put in before the meeting and the research effort they expend during it are minimal. They have enough general knowledge of the panel topic to be able to listen with some understanding to the deliveries and formulate a question.  Their own papers may be part of a larger project, and the activity of composing and presenting a conference version of that part is, though helpful, often a last-minute composition to fill 12 minutes at the podium.

Continue reading What’s the Point of Academic Conferences?

The Financial Pressure on Faculty

The report entitled “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors” is an important study that adds to the growing data base on the outcome of a college education.  It’s a product of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, and is authored by Anthony Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, and Michelle Melton.

The study collects data from the 2009 American Community Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, which asked people the usual questions about income etc., but also asked those who earned a bachelor’s degree what they majored in.  The result is a breakdown of majors by income.  (Respondents had to work full time and be 25 to 64 years of age.)
 
Nothing surprising showed up.  Engineers, computer science, mathematics, and business topped the field, while humanities, arts, education, and psychology/social work came out at the bottom.  This survey includes actual salary figures for each field, along with a breakdown of each field into specific majors. 

Continue reading The Financial Pressure on Faculty

An Unexpected Harmony on the Humanities, But…

Professor of English Mark Bauerlein of Emory University reports on a harmonious conference on the humanities.  Harmony is all very well, but perhaps the conference might have done better to raise embarrassing questions that might have made it more contentious – such as that English Departments have shifted away from offering traditional literature and instead attempt to attract students with science fiction courses and other trendy subjects. 

As I reported in my book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a report in 2007 entitled The Vanishing Shakespeare

that took aim at this trend. The report reported a survey of the requirements for English majors at 70 of America’s leading colleges and universities. ” . . . we defined a college or university as having a Shakespeare requirement when English majors were obliged either to take a course in

Shakespeare or to take two out of three single-author courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.”By this criterion, English majors at only fifteen of seventy major institutions of higher education did have to take a course in Shakespeare, including Harvard University, Catholic University, California Institute of Technology, Middlebury College, Stanford University, and Wellesley College. However, 55 of the 70 did not require its English majors to take a course in Shakespeare, including Princeton, Yale, Brown, Swarthmore College, Williams College, Columbia, Colby College, Carleton College, Bowdoin College, Bryn Mawr College, and Johns Hopkins. 

True, English Departments often require students to take courses in expository writing, usually taught by graduate students.  But perhaps because many undergraduates do not read traditional literature – many hardly read at all, as Professor Bauerlein has complained in another place – they do not write well and find it difficult to get jobs after graduation.  Is it any wonder that parents suspect that a degree in English is not cost-effective?

No Comeback for the Humanities

Here is a story from the Baton Rouge Advocate that confirms the decline of the humanities in the state system (although cuts struck deep into the sciences and education as well).  Officials reviewed hundreds of programs in state colleges and universities, judging them by, among other things, the number of students they graduated each year.  If, on average, they produced less than eight bachelor’s degrees, they received a “low-completer” designation.  The result is the termination of 111 programs, consolidation of 17 programs, “consolidation & termination” of 171 programs, “conditional” maintenance of 106 programs, and “maintenance” of 51 programs (see the Regents’ report here.

A few specifics:

—–LSU ended its undergraduate major in Latin and in German (saving the university $500,000 per year)

—–Southern University, a historically black college, lost majors in Spanish and in French

—–The “Liberal Arts” major was dropped at three institutions

—–According to the Advocate, “no public historically black college in the state will offer a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language once the programs are phased out”

The move is part of a national trend that has been well-publicized in the last year.  If the terminations at LSU do not receive the same withering criticism that fell on SUNY-Albany when it dropped majors in French, Italian, Classics, Russian, and Theater, it means that the humanists have lost the national debate.  Albany took the lead and absorbed the backlash.  Now, foreign language eliminations are an accomplished fact.

Continue reading No Comeback for the Humanities

Politics and the Demise of the Humanities

“But when humanism became the servant of the political or university establishment it lost its vitality and, indeed, its credibility…

         Willem Frijhoff discussing 16th century humanism in 
         A History of the University, Vol. II (Cambridge U Press), p. 45

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                                                        ***
The crisis of the humanities officially arrived on October 1, 2010. At least this is what Stanley Fish claims in the <em>New York Times</em>. The fact that SUNY Albany’s president announced the demise of the university’s French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theatre programs on this date hardly appears to be a significant omen, but Fish believes this event possesses deeper symbolic importance. It represents the empirical reality that numerous scholars have already observed: the humanities are withering away in higher education. 
 
What will revive them?  As a consistent postmodernist, Fish suggests politics should be the answer, by which he means “the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies—legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others—that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.”  In a follow-up column Fish specifies that this political solution also includes begging the state to provide more money for the humanities. 

Continue reading Politics and the Demise of the Humanities

Reading Kant and Debating White Nationalists

cpac-2009.jpgThe many surveys backing up what those of us in the academy know only too well—that liberals vastly outnumber conservatives—are used to bolster the idealistic argument for “intellectual diversity.”
But a viewing of an incident at the recent CPAC conference and a video of a philosophy professor further confirmed my beliefs that it is not intellectual diversity that is needed as much as intellectual anything, and that that need is much more urgent than often recognized. The New Left began its onslaught on Western civilization through violent demands in the 1960s for the inherently anti-intellectual “studies” that replaced the traditional disciplines, like philosophy. The New Leftists and their intellectual descendents in the academy have just about succeeded in their mission of destroying the foundation of Western civilization: and that is reasoned inquiry. We see the outcome every day, in the nonsensical pontifications of tenured professors and inchoate expressions of our young people—even those involved in conservative politics.
Take for example an incident at CPAC with a group of young adults denouncing white nationalist Jamie Kelso captured on tape. They remind me so much of the college students I teach. Their reactions of disgust as Kelso’s aim becomes apparent indicate that their hearts are in the right place.

Continue reading Reading Kant and Debating White Nationalists

A Terrible Time for New Ph.D.s

presidential_drgowns.jpg“If I don’t succeed in academe, I’ll die!”

So read the anguished headline of a Jan. 23 cri de coeur to Salon magazine’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis. The writer was a woman who had apparently spent eight years acquiring a Ph.D. in anthropology, plus another seven years trying unsuccessfully to get an entry-level tenure-track professor’s job—a position whose average starting salary is less than $54,000 a year, which is decent but perhaps not worth putting in nearly a decade in graduate school. At age 37 (if you add fifteen years to her presumed age at college graduation), the woman chafed with frustration, fury, the grinding humiliation of being able to secure only low-paying part-time teaching work, and resentment of her professor-husband who had landed a tenure-track slot at a prestigious university—but she could not let go of the dream that had driven her to endure nearly a decade of grad-school poverty for no reward. She wrote in her letter:

“I scrape by teaching the occasional class for peanuts, and one other prof has taken enough pity on me to let me work in her lab so I can pretend to continue my research. On an intellectual level I understand that I’m not going to get that professor job that I’ve been envisioning for, oh, 15 years now. It ain’t going to happen—no matter what I do, there is going to be someone younger, better trained, and with more publications….The problem is that emotionally, I can’t drop it. It’s like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue—all day, every day. I’m angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can’t get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I’m so consumed with jealousy….Sometimes, stuck in this town I don’t much care for, with my once-promising career in shambles, I wonder if it’s even worth getting out of bed.”

This ground-down woman is scarcely unrepresentative, in a job market where fewer than one out of every two holders of doctoral degrees in the humanities these days receive job offers that put them onto the tenure track that is key to a successful (if seldom wealth-generating) and reasonably secure life of teaching and scholarship—and that’s in good year. Right now we’re in a bad year, when, according to the American Association of University Professors, the ratio of tenure-track openings to new doctorates is more like 1 to 4.

Both the Modern Language Association (the leading professional society for English professors), meeting right after Christmas, and the American Historical Society, meeting in early January, reported fallen-off attendance and a marked decrease in job interviews and hence job openings for the anxious grad students and new Ph.D.’s who typically flock to the two associations’ annual conventions (which double as job fairs), double or triple up in motel rooms, and peddle their fresh-from-the-printer curricula vitae. The MLA convention used to be low-hanging fruit for journalists, who could gin up easy laughs for their readers just by quoting the postmodernist mumbo-jumbo in the titles of the scholarly papers presented: “Back in Black: Theorizing the Sequel in Marlowe’s Tamburlaines” (that’s an actual paper title from the 2009 MLA meeting). This year’s MLA convention, after a 50 percent drop in the number of tenure-track job openings between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 academic years, was just plain grim, from all reports.

For months now, the spotlight of negative attention in the academic trade press has been trained on the for-profit “career colleges,” with their high dropout rates, sometimes questionable recruiting tactics, and poor reputation for “gainful employment” on the part of their graduates, who can find themselves with no jobs and mountains of debt from the student loans that account for nearly 90 percent of their alma maters’ revenues. Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, can be viewed as career colleges for the highly educated. As with career colleges, their stated purpose is vocational training: for that full-time faculty position in academia. And exactly the same unappealing features of many career colleges, with their low-income, poorly prepared student populations turn out also to be features of Ph.D. programs, even though the latters’ student populations tend to be upper-middle-class and if anything, over-prepared.

Continue reading A Terrible Time for New Ph.D.s

Rigoberta’s Revenge: The Implosion Of Anthropology

menchu.jpgOne of my professors in college defined an anthropologist as “a sociologist in a tent.” His comment was not a compliment — he was a sociologist — but it was true in ways that he did not have in mind.
Anthropology has always been a big tent, including as it does what one anthropologist calls “real scientists” as well as “fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing.” Similarly, according to Elizabeth Cashdan, chair of anthropology at the University of Utah,

some anthropologists might mine the language and analytical tools favored by such humanities as literary criticism, while others may be more likely to deploy statistical methodology as befits social science. Still others might rely on the biological metrics, hard data and scientific method used by natural scientists. “This is reflective of tensions in the whole discipline,” said Cashdan, a bio-cultural anthropologist….

Now, however, that tent appears to be getting smaller; because of a revision in the American Anthropology Association’s long range planning document, many anthropologists believe they are being forced out. Inside Higher Ed (from which the Cashdan quote above is taken) has a long article on “Anthropology Without Science,” and a similar article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Anthropologists Debate Whether ‘Science’ Is a Part of Their Mission,” begins by asking, “Is anthropology a science? Is it a coherent discipline at all?” One day earlier the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a long piece by Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and an anthropologist himself, on “Anthropology Association Rejecting Science?”

Continue reading Rigoberta’s Revenge: The Implosion Of Anthropology