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.

At Stanford, as this story in the Stanford Daily reports, administrators are taking steps to slow the decline.  During “Admit Weekend,” they will host an event entitled “Creativity and the Human Condition: Humanities Research and Arts Endeavors at Stanford.”  There, incoming students will be encouraged to enroll in humanities courses and boost humanities majors.

Currently, only 16 percent of Stanford undergraduates have chosen one of the 15 majors offered in the college.  Recently, administrators note, entering students have displayed more “pre-professionalism” than in the past, an attitude that leads them to regard courses in art history and Medieval literature as a hurdle irrelevant to their futures.  One point of the weekend event is to dispel that assumption.  At the prestigious Stanford Graduate School of Business, Vice Provost Harry Elam noted, 40 percent of the students were humanities majors as undergraduates.  “Humanities Outreach Officer” Corrie Goldman told the Daily that businesses need employees with broad skills and well-rounded educations: “A creative, nimble mind is valuable in an era where the assembly line is going away.”  History professor Robert Crews stated that humanistic study produces “citizens of the world.”

These comments are unobjectionable, but there is something missing from them, indeed, the central feature of humanistic study: the content of the tradition.  To say that humanities majors are “nimble” thinkers and global citizens and effective MBA students is to place all the attention on the outcome and to make it so general that the distinctiveness of humanistic study is lost.  What about those 60% of MBA students who weren’t humanities majors?  Can’t physics produce “creative, nimble” thinking?  Doesn’t economics lead to global awareness?

If we wish to defend the humanities, we should do it on their own terms.  The justification should contain references to Dante,Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Bernini . . .  It should cite the acquisition of what T. S. Eliot called “the historical sense.”  It should include Great Books and High Culture in its description.

The Stanford initiative may do all that, but the public statements here shy away.  In fact, the only reference to curricular content is a damaging one:

“One strategy is updating traditional humanities courses to include more contemporary ethical, political and social issues.”

More relevance, more contemporary matters, they believe, will draw the students in.  But consider the curricular impact.  WHen the humanities address “ethical, political and social issues” of today, they become less and less the humanities.  What we get is social science lite, for instance, the approach to racism by reading a few books of racial literary criticism along with novels by people of color.  The scientific literature on racism in sociology, social psychology, etc. is overlooked.

More than that, the emphasis on relevance and contemporaneity just won’t work.  It allows too much popular, political, and social material onto the syllabus, much of it mediocre and transitory.  Because those courses have a surface appeal to 19-year-olds, who’d rather study The Simpsons than The Ambassadors, serious humanistic study further deteriorates.  The more they compromise with present-ist, topical impulses, the more the humanities lose.  they should stick forthrightly, unashamedly, "counter-culturally" to Chaucer, the Renaissance, Wagner, Romanticism . . .


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

2 thoughts on “No Comeback for the Humanities

  1. The humanities (and social sciences) should be taught without recourse to large volumes of the trendy and topical, but there’s no reason to believe that every single college and small university should offer majors in every single discipline. It’s just unrealistic to expect that every potential Latin major should be able to find that concentration in an institution close to home. Disciplines that understandably attract smaller numbers of majors might even benefit if they were consolidated into fewer, larger departments. That’s not to say that it would be acceptable if there were no French departments in Oklahoma, but universities and colleges should be able to lead with their strengths in the realm of humanities, rather than offering a thin curriculum in every subject.

  2. Mark,
    I agree with you, but I think it is important to note that not just the humanities but the social sciences themselves have become “social science lite.” There is very little “scientific literature” in contemporary sociology and social psychology, which today consist mainly of simplistic ideological assumptions and slogans. The decadence of the humanities is only one part of what Robert Nisbet called the decline of the academic dogma.

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