Monday, January 11, 2010

Universities: The death of the humanities?

BACK IN MY small-town high school English class, we were required to absorb long passages from Shakespeare. Hamlet. MacBeth. There was no possibility of escape. Mrs. Haberlin insisted that we leave her classroom each day with a strong taste of the classics. It wasn't pretty, but she was not a person to be denied.

Fast forward to college, where the professor assigned us a novel (Return of the Native) to read during the semester break. It would prepare us, she asserted, to hit the ground running when we returned for the second part of the course in English lit. By then, we were beginning to take it seriously.

Comes now, from an academic friend, an article that tells of life at the darker end of the spectrum. It appeared in the autumn issue of The American Scholar and reports the erosion of the humanities in today's college classrooms. It was written by William M. Chace, whose long academic career included the presidencies of Emory and Wesleyan Universities. Here are a few figures that disturb Chace as well as this writer:

From 1970 through 2004, the latest available figures, English majors dropped from 7.6 pct. to 3.9 pct. of total enrollment; foreign language and literature, 2.5 pct. to 1.3 pct.; history, 18.5 pct. to 10. 7 pct.; business majors, rising from 13.7 pct. to 21.9 pct. while the humanities as a whole dropped from 30 pct. to below 16 pct.

In short, for better and probably for worse, we are turning out a whole generation of business students. Chace concludes there are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the lure of richer economic returns and the failure of faculties to cry out for more attention to their disciplines (although I'm not sure how much of that would be useful these days).

"It's probably irreversible," Chace writes gloomily, observing that education should not be "all about getting a job. " He allows that the study of the humanities teaches us "how to read and think better." Considering how the national dialogue on critical public issues are being strung out these days with loony utterances from congressmen and their enablers, I see no reason to argue with that.

There is some validity to his concern that the rising cost of higher education is forcing people to rethink what's best for an investment in a student, whose campus days would not be wasted on subjects with less earning power. Purely pragmatic, of course, and it will have legions of defenders.

Speaking of his own experience in academia, Chace had some strong words about the drift of current public universities, where enrollment growth as well as tuition costs have soared in recent years:
"Off campus, the consumer's point of view about future earnings and economic security was a mirror image of on-campus thinking in the offices of deans, provosts and presidents. I was in those offices day in and day out for 20 years and can report that such officials are forever considering how to exploit available resources against ever-growing operating costs. As those costs grow, they create a paradox: the only way to bring in more money, over and above tuition income, is to employ more and more people to attract philanthropic donors and to assure the continuing flow of research dollars from governmental and other sources. Every administrator is complicit in the expanding number of non-faculty employees - development officers, technical support staff, research assistants, lawyers attuned to federal regulations - and human resources personnel to handle the every-growing numbers of just such new employes. "

The trajectory for that continues to rise quickly and it may someday consume itself with the law of diminishing returns. Until then, I have a strange feeling that term papers will be graded with dollar signs. Like Chace, I don't think you can change it. The odds are overwhelming. But with the dispatch of the humanities we will be losing a dimension that has long served to assure us of a civilized society. Mrs. Haberlin knew what she was talking about.


PJJinOregon said...

Public universities? Most of the big name "public universities" are thinly disguised private schools. When a state government contributes less than 10% of the operating expenses, it's no longer a state/public school. Today, most of the Big10 schools get their funding from corporations, federal agencies, tuition, and from endowments that rival Harvard and Yale. The business school, engineering school, and athletic department pull in the cash and call the plays. A pox on humanities.

Mencken said...

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, before he was $125,000 in debt and only a history degree in his quiver.