Humanities Must Embrace Rigorous Standards

Much has been said about the decline of humanities, but one important aspect receives less attention: the humanities are easy and becoming easier.

Certainly, this was the popular impression among students when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. The softer the subject, the easier it was. My friends’ schedules, usually posted on dorm walls, seemed to confirm our assumption; at a university known for its heavy workload, students labored for hours every day, but we in the arts still had the shortest classes. Traditionally, we humanists have spent our extra time engrossed in reading, but by the 2010s, that was far from either expectation or practice. Nor did exams prompt much studying; not only were our tests easy, but they were designed in light of buzzwords like “critical thinking” that ensured knowledge bore little relation to academic performance. Although studying the humanities requires sharp thinking as well as regurgitating facts, broad knowledge forms a crucial basis for intelligent discussion. My impression of my peers’ factual knowledge and the rigor of our shared curriculum was certainly not good.

Difficulty is uneven across classes and disciplines. From my experience in the Classics, inherently something of a multi-disciplinary field, I found that language courses were far tougher than the historical and cultural alternatives. The structure of the field probably impeded slackening: students learn elementary Latin and Greek to read Greek and Roman texts; faculty face pressure to rapidly improve essential language skills until students can begin reading ancient authors whose work has not grown easier over the millennia. Even though I struggled through some Latin in high school, my language classes were a disruptive shock. It took me well into junior year to adapt, and even then, languages accounted for the vast majority of my study hours.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Latin and Greek have fully resisted the humanities’ declining standards.

The older generation frequently laments insufficient language skills among pupils and even professional scholars. We can attribute some of this to the decline of Latin and Greek in secondary schools, which requires universities to teach elementary grammar before proceeding to classical authors themselves.[1] Even classes for proficient readers of Latin and Greek suffer from a lack of rigor; like their alternatives in the humanities, language classes increasingly prescribe shortened passages rather than whole books. Nevertheless, the languages seem comparatively difficult; reading selected paragraphs in an ancient tongue is more laborious than reading a similarly shortened passage in the vernacular.

Unsurprisingly, Latin and Greek have witnessed a slower progression of many other unhealthy trends.

I encountered fewer students from other fields trying to satisfy “breadth requirements,” university rules to force students to try new fields, and more Classics majors in Greek and Latin courses because these necessarily require an orderly progression of classes; no one can take Latin 3 without first passing Latin 1 and 2. While a broad education encompassing many subjects is not to be scorned, the proliferation of what my peers called “bird courses,” easy classes meant to satisfy breadth requirements, is probably not a positive development. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I noticed that language classes usually benefitted from more regular attendance than bird courses.

Many causes probably have led to the declining standards, but one particularly worries me. As enrollment in the humanities decreases, departments—and individual professors—face pressure to reverse the trend.[2] Classes that are fun rather than difficult can attract students seeking to adopt a second major or to satisfy a breadth requirement. Yet this laxity risks prompting a death spiral of easier classes, boosting short-term enrollments but reducing long-term interest.

Why this reduction in long-term interest?

In the first place, any field relies on its inherent appeal. Few would like drama without acting, sports without athletics, or a TV show of exclusively commercials. Many young people are interested in thinking, politics, and art but study harder or more practical subjects. They don’t consider universities the proper gateways to their extra-curricular cultural interests. Why would an ambitious youth enroll in classes with poor job prospects whose only redeeming merit was easiness? The intrinsic value of the humanities lies in actually studying the humanities.

Nor is this the only threat from declining rigor.

Low standards leave the humanities an attractive base for aspiring political activists—nobody has time to organize protests in mechanical engineering. Even if genuine extremists remain relatively rare, they disproportionately affect the reputation of the arts, deterring prospective students and incurring the anger of Republican governors.[3]

The latter, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, not only attack the humanities politicization but join their Democratic counterparts in decrying graduates’ poor job prospects. Many in the humanities argue that arts students build successful careers and that employers value our skills.[4] After all, we still have a large alumni network, the graduates of older, more difficult days.[5] The trouble is that those alumni value our steadily vanishing reputation as hard workers: someone who learns a suite of languages over four years probably can adapt to new and difficult technologies.

Professors who raise standards by assigning more reading and developing more exacting exams, might initially face resistance and further declining enrollment. However, in the long run, rigor would enhance the stature of graduates in the job, social, and political markets. If it is tough to graduate with a humanities degree, then said degrees will reliably mark talent. Traits like diligence and braininess are inherently valuable, but easy humanities degrees do not guarantee these traits in graduates. With more demanding courses, initially dropping enrollment might rise again more quickly than expected: word spreads quickly on campus. As the humanities regain respect, students who never previously would have considered the arts might look at us with interest. If the humanities are to survive, we need to hold ourselves to higher standards.






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  • Jeffrey Schulman

    Jeffrey E. Schulman is a Ph.D. student at Groningen University, working on the political history of the Roman Empire. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 2017 with a major in Classics and Classical Civilizations.

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One thought on “Humanities Must Embrace Rigorous Standards”

  1. Rigor is quality and not quantity — a distinction that is often overlooked.
    Merely assigning more reading will make the course more difficult, but it won’t inherently increase the level of rigor.

    For example, all of the men who signed the Constitution in 1787 had a horse. Am I increasing rigor if I demand students know the names of these horses (assuming that could even be determined)? No, that’s busywork.

    We can attribute some of this to the decline of Latin and Greek in secondary schools, which requires universities to teach elementary grammar before proceeding to classical authors themselves

    It’s far worse than that — they really aren’t even teaching ENGLISH grammar anymore — they are confronted with the much bigger problem of students who don’t even speak the language, and it’s no longer just Spanish. It’s not uncommon today to have a school system forced to teach in 90 (or more) different foreign languages.

    This is one of the costs of massive immigration that no one discusses — if you insist on mixed-level ability grouping and a third of the group doesn’t even know the language (English), how much grammar can you really teach?

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