Monday, December 7, 2015

Support the Study of Humanities - Life's Not Just about STEM

The study of English and the humanities could use a spirited defense these days, as education budgets are slashed and the country is increasingly infatuated with the study of STEM.  The New York Times resident Burkean conservative and defender of culture David Brooks worries about the decreasing number of humanities degrees being awarded.  In fact, that number has been cut in half in the past fifty years, and the "humanist vocation" is fading as a legitimate course of study primarily for career and economic objectives.  Certainly, parents and students have reason to shy away because there is some truth to the adage, "Accounting majors get jobs; lit majors don't."

And that point of view poses the potential of cultural decay.

English and humanities teachers are, in the words of my former department chair, "purveyors of culture."  English literature and the humanities are vestiges of our spiritual identity, as they address existential questions about character and destiny.  There is a meaning-of-life angle to education that all people seek, and those answers are uniquely found in the stories we tell and our collective history as human beings.  These areas - the part of us that is "talked about in eulogies" represent the most "inward and elemental" essence of our lives.

Brooks' concerns were mirrored in the Times Sunday Observer column, as Verlyn Klinkenborg laments The Decline and Fall of the English Major.  Notably, Klinkenborg laments that she still has a job teaching fiction and nonfiction writing, as she "hopes and fears" each year she will have nothing left to teach them because they can already write well. Obviously, her hopes and fears never come to pass, which considering her position at Harvard may be a bit depressing. The type of writing that she is talking about - clear, direct, and humane - is at the heart of the study of humanities that Brooks discusses.  She notes the humanities is "a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language."  

Clearly, a theme is emerging about the role played by the study of language and literature.  And English teachers must step up. However, Klinkenborg offers a very clear explanation and warning of the situation: The recent shift away from the humanities suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations.

Granted, there are defenders of the arts and humanities that are still fighting the good fight and raising the profile of culture in schools.  Brooks points us to the recent report from The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.  And, certainly, Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind promotes the sort of right brain thinking the defines Brooks' humanism.  Other voices from the wilderness that has become the realm of the literature and social science studies are seeking to change the discussion from "STEM to STEAM."  Millenial writer Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post acknowledges the recent revelations about the humanities, adding perspective and counterargument to the claim of the humanities' demise.  Like Brooks, Petri observes that the criticisms about the usefulness or marketability of an English degree actually miss the entire point of the humanities in the first place.

Read the case for the Humanities, and it is like someone saying that painting is great exercise for your arm and studies show that painters on average live three months longer than their non-painting contemporaries. If that’s all you get out of it, forget it. There are other ways of exercising your arm and living longer. Those are externalities. They aren’t why you paint.  

That is, perhaps, the most astute of her observations.  The true crisis of the humanities is that people have so obviously missed the point taught in great works of art that to argue for justifying the arts is beyond the critics' ability to understand.  Interestingly, Dickens addressed this issue more than a century ago with his satirical portrait of Gradgrind's utilitarian school in his tenth novel Hard Times.  Notably, Petri links to an article from The Atlantic which claims "Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis."  Of course, Jordan Weissmann is simply arguing that 1985 was a worse year, and not that the humanities are actually in great shape lately.  However, the argument that the humanities are not in decline is bolstered in a recent piece from Andrew Grafton and James Grossman, "The Humanities in Dubious Battle."  Grafton and Grossman expand upon the basics of Weissmann's piece and criticize faulty reading of data regarding the study of the humanities.  Certainly it is that true that the elite colleges like Harvard are going to procure and produce more humanities students than state and community colleges.  But that has always been the case, precisely because studying the humanities can be seen as almost a luxury among those paying heavy tuition bills.  That said, I still have little doubt that in a STEM-focused world where some in government and media want to eliminate student loan and scholarship for all but STEM majors, a PR campaign for the arts is still necessary. That is perhaps the most astute observation from Grafton and Grossman who believe:

What we need to hear—and what the Harvard report doesn't offer us—are their voices. We also need to hear the voices of those whose lives are touched by these humanities majors after college, whether at the workplace or in the community.  What makes some students believe that being humanists will make them better doctors, better lawyers, better advertising experts? What do they find, in their courses, to keep them in departments of English and history and Romance languages? How are we helping them to articulate what they bring to the world beyond the university, so they can tell those stories more effectively? How can we make those stories available to new undergraduates as they decide what to study?
Ultimately, the real battle lies with those on the front lines in the English and social studies classroom.  It is up to us to reiterate "this a very real matter ... of being."


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