Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The crisis of the humanities

This kind of story ("The message from Tallahassee could not be blunter: Give us engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.") makes me think that the humanities are in crisis. And people often say they are. But what is the nature of the crisis, and what has caused it?

Apparently Florida's Governor Scott wants students to pursue "job-friendly degrees." But what these are will change. In the worst case you might begin a degree in Job-Friendly Studies only to find out that jobs are hard to get in that area by the time you graduate (perhaps because everyone else had the same idea too). In the best case you might graduate into a good job because of your choice of major, but still find that the industry's fortunes change over time, not always for the better. You also might find that you don't like the major you have chosen and don't do well in it (either because you don't like it or because it's too hard, which might be why such a lucrative major was under-subscribed in the first place). You might find that you don't like working in that area. For all of these reasons it seems a bad idea to try to push students into degree programs that don't appeal to them. The free market seems pretty good at dealing with this kind of issue. 

Washington & Lee University's President Ruscio believes that there is an "increasing need to prepare students for careers and jobs." Is the need really increasing? If so, why? Of course the economy is in bad shape, but we know what caused that, and it wasn't too many students choosing to major in the humanities. (I like some of Ruscio's ideas, but this line stood out as questionable to me.) If there is a greater need now for colleges and universities to prepare students for the job market it seems to come from the general culture, not from the economy. People expect job-preparation in college, partly because college is often advertised as a ticket to a higher income. But the seemingly obviously practical choice is often not actually a practical choice. Business, for instance, is not a good choice of undergraduate major, even though that's where the money is. (That is, there is money to be made in business, but Business majors do not appear to be the ones who make it.) So what should students study? The short answer is: whatever they choose. That way they will enjoy their studies more and probably earn higher grades. And those who care most about making money can choose to major accordingly, probably in something that will prepare them for medical or law school, or else in Engineering. 

Many students still choose to major in the humanities, and that's OK. This table suggests that Philosophy majors earn more than majors in any other liberal arts (I'm counting Economics as a social science). They earn more than Biology, Chemistry, and IT majors, for instance. Also more than Business Administration majors. But is this because studying Philosophy makes you more valuable to employers, or causes you to be perceived to be more valuable, or is it because Philosophy majors tend to be smarter than others, and intelligence is valuable to employers (or at least leads to promotions and higher salaries)? Surely it is the latter. If the economy needed more Chemistry majors they would earn more, wouldn't they? Maybe I've bought into too much economics, but if there is anything to this supply and demand stuff then we should either leave students to choose their own majors or else be much more careful about which majors we push. All majors in science, technology, and mathematics are not equal. And manipulating students into majoring in Chemistry (mid-career median salary $79,900 according to the Wall Street Journal) or Biology ($64,800) rather than Philosophy ($81,200) makes no sense. Or none that I can see, at any rate.

Marjorie Perloff quotes Robert Weisbuch, "a distinguished professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation," who declares:
Today’s consensus about the state of the humanities–it’s bad, it’s getting worse, and no one is doing much about it– is supported by dismal facts. The percentage of undergraduates majoring in humanities fields has been halved over the past three decades. Financing for faculty research has decreased. The salary gap between full-time scholars in the humanities and in other fields has widened, and more and more humanists are employed part time and paid ridiculously low salaries. . . . As doctoral programs in the humanities proliferate irresponsibly, turning out more and more graduates who cannot find jobs, the waste of human talent becomes enormous, intolerable.
More broadly, the humanities, like the liberal arts generally, appear far less surely at the center of higher education than they once did. We have lost the respect of our colleagues in other fields, as well as the attention of an intelligent public. The action is elsewhere. We are living through a time when outrage with the newfangled in the humanities–with deconstruction or Marxism or whatever–has become plain lack of interest. No one’s even angry with us now, just bored.
Perloff agrees with this last point. But I'm not so sure. Are people really bored with History (think of the interest in the movie Lincoln)? Or with Philosophy (people never seem to stop asking the "big questions" or caring about what makes sense)? What I think people might be bored with is English, and not literature but precisely the obsession with theories such as deconstruction and Marxism that seemed to dominate the study of English in recent decades (I'm thinking especially of the 1980s, but the desire to be able to refer knowingly to whoever is trendy, especially if they are French (or Zizek) seems to have persisted). I don't mean this as an attack on French philosophers. It isn't (necessarily) their fault that they have been made into bandwagons. Perloff offers little by way of remedy for the humanities generally (her focus is on literary studies), but her essay is well worth reading: she rejects faux interdisciplinarity and the conversion of literary studies into cultural studies in ways that I find persuasive. Here are some of the best bits:
The downside of the equation between cultural studies and literary studies is that, carried to its logical conclusion, cultural studies can dispense with the literary altogether. Studies of consumerism, for example, can be based on the analysis of shopping malls or Home Depot layouts; no literary texts are required. Teen culture can be explored through music, film, and computer games. Current social mores and cultural constraints can be profitably studied by examining Internet discourse. And so on. Everything, after all, can be a text and so why not a golf course? A skating rink? A theme park? "Professor X," I read in the Bulletin of a leading university, "specializes in 20th-century American literature, film and cultural studies. . . . She has begun a . . . book-length project that reads important post-World War II Hollywood films as public relations maneuvers, with which the studios sought to create a benign impression of a beleaguered industry and to shape the nation’s social and economic agenda during the difficult process of reconversion to a peacetime economy."
Such studies are regularly designated as "intThe Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is a ‘public relations maneuver," designed to mask ‘the difficult process of reconversion to a peacetime economy’, then the discipline in question is cultural history in keeping with the critic’s primary purpose, which is to unmask a particular social and economic agenda. Related disciplines applied might be economics and political science–specifically, the trauma of postwar reintegration for those whose "best years" were, ironically enough, on the battlefield where they could perform the heroic actions denied to them in their prior peacetime existence.
But there is one discipline that clearly isn’t involved here and that is literature–or, for that matter, film–as artistic practice. [...]
[...] And as such, the study of poetry or film or drama is difficult to justify as more than an after-school "extra." For surely if the object is to learn how U.S. culture was restructured in the postwar years, there are more accurate indicators than individual Hollywood movies.
Her proposed solution is this: "what is urgently needed in the "Humanities" today is more knowledge of actual art works and a great emphasis on induction." She may be right (I'm not sure I understand what she means about induction, although it has to do with recognizing that not just anyone who can read can thereby read a poem properly, just as not just anyone who can hear can listen properly, critically to a symphony, and that becoming a skilled reader requires both education and lots of practice), but she's clearly talking about literature and the arts, not such humanities as History and Philosophy. So what about them?

Stanley Fish writes:
The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
And when I say “explain,” I should add aggressively explain — taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.
The real problem is surely the myths, pretensions, and hypocrisy that Fish identifies. There's the crisis, although surely it was ever thus. Myths aren't new.

Finally, at least for now, here's another essay on the crisis, which says:
Search JSTOR for the phrase “crisis in the humanities.” Starting with the oldest articles first, I stopped reading at record 69 out of 217. The phrase first appears in a JSTOR journal in 1922, and from 1940 on becomes a steady stream of complaints. I think this is enough evidence to suggest that there has been a sense of crisis in the humanities almost as long as there have been departments of humanities. The organization of modern universities seems timeless, but the development of departments and disciplines as we know them now is a product of the late 19th century. Not only is the sense of crisis decades old and persistent, but for the most part the causes are as well. Students are choosing professional programs over the humanities; the sciences have the most authority and get the most funding; there are too many humanities PhDs; they’re evaluated by standards appropriate to the sciences but not the humanities.
This last sentence gives a pretty good summary of what people generally mean when they talk about the humanities being in crisis. If students' choosing professional programs is a problem we could close (or just not open) these programs, or explain to students and their parents why an ambition to be a lawyer is not a good reason to major in Pre-Law rather than Politics or History or Philosophy or English. Sciences surely get more funding because businesses give them grants, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. (Of course it's easy to see how it might create problems in some cases.) Too many PhDs is a problem, but the solution is relatively obvious. Universities should hire more professors or admit fewer graduate students. Scientists have more authority and receive more money? This shouldn't matter, unless it mean that sciences are being favored irrationally, because of a general sense by people with power and money that science is somehow better than the humanities. And this brings us back to Fish's point about myth and about the hubris of people who want to manipulate higher education without really knowing anything about the subjects involved. The crisis of the humanities is not within the humanities, in other words. It is an ethical crisis in people outside the humanities, and in those within who connive with them. Changing the humanities in order to cater to these people is just adding to the problem. Or so it seems to me.

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