The Real Cause of the Humanities’ Decline

It’s common knowledge that the humanities are in trouble. To that end, one would expect that the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), a federation of 72 scholarly organizations, would offer a strong and constructive critique of the status quo. However, at its recent panel entitled “The Public Face of the Humanities,” the ACLS’s panelists suggested that the stewards of the humanities are completely blameless. Instead, they rounded up the usual suspects: high tuition, Millennial insistence on quick gratification, and an antiquated belief that the humanities are “the repository of wisdom.” In other words, they simply arranged the deck chairs of the Titanic in a new pattern.

Make no mistake: the humanities’ wounds are largely self-inflicted. Indeed, the academy has robbed the humanities of their coherence. In the natural sciences, curricula represent an intentional, coherent whole. Prerequisites are a matter of course. Students master basic skills and acquire fundamental knowledge, and move toward specialization only after receiving a strong foundation in their discipline. In contrast, the humanities offer no such structure. A major in English literature is often but a smorgasbord of disparate, disconnected classes. It would be nonsense for an engineering major to graduate without taking calculus. So why is it acceptable for an English major to graduate without having studied Shakespeare?

Many humanities programs wagered that by lowering standards and eliminating requirements they would attract more students. They deserve their newfound contempt.

Furthermore, by reducing the rigor of the humanities majors, the academy has robbed the humanities of their utility. Surely, a liberal education is about more than career preparation, and the notion that higher education is simply vocational training must be vigorously resisted. But in a world in which workers will hold an average of 11 different jobs in the course of their working lives, a truly liberal education can prepare students for life in the workplace. A real education in the classics of literature and the basics of writing will contribute to success in a variety of professions.

If the liberal arts are to have a future, then burying our heads in the sand will no longer do. It is time to fight to restore the humanities and social sciences to their rightful place in higher education by restoring a core, making them academically rigorous, and showing that studying the humanities really does provide an education for career and community.


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