Friday, January 3, 2014

The humanities again

Alex Rosenberg lays into the non-analytic-philosophy humanities here (h/t Brian Leiter). It's unfortunate that just when he talks about people losing credibility he misspells both 'Virginia Woolf' and 'lose' in the same line. But never mind. What does he actually say?

His claim is that few students want to major in the non-philosophy humanities because they don't believe that doing so will help them become better leaders or better at dealing "with the human condition in a way that matters to them." And he gives three reasons for this:
  1. too much multiculturalism (or too much sacrificing of attention to canonical works and figures in order to make room for others) and "theory"
  2. too little attention to the basics, such as composition (which is rarely taught by senior professors)
  3. attempts by humanists to "compete on the terrain of the sciences," which inform us scientifically while the humanities move us emotionally
The solution is for humanists to get back to helping people appreciate and create art.

It's hard to agree. Learning to appreciate or create art won't make anyone a better leader. Or at least offering to teach such appreciation will not attract large numbers of students whose primary goal is to develop leadership skills. There is no clear connection between leadership and art. 

What about those who want to learn to deal with the human condition in a way that matters to them? I'm not sure such people exist, because I'm not sure that either the human condition or ways of dealing with it exists. Perhaps that's silly. Part of the human condition is that we die (so there must be such a thing as the human condition, if it has parts), and there are surely ways of dealing with mortality, of coming to some terms with it. Perhaps. But do large numbers of students want to major in this kind of thing? Surely not. There are students who want to major in something that matters to them, that seems important. Pretty much all students want that, even those who reluctantly major in something that seems trivial but practical to them. So perhaps there's a problem of perceived importance in the humanities (by which we seem to mean literature). 

One problem, then, seems to be that not many students care enough about literature to major in it. There is something sad about this, but I'm not sure how much it matters. If they love to read but care even more about finding a cure for cancer, for instance, then that's not a shame. And there certainly are some students who love literature enough to want to major in it. If the number has gone down I suspect this is partly because of new media (people read more stuff online and watch more movies than they used to, and correspondingly read fewer books) and partly because professors of literature themselves seem to have lost interest in literature. At least the more you talk about theory and science (although I'm not sure how much of the latter really goes on) instead of literature, the less your students are likely to think you care about literature. And apathy is contagious. 

As for composition, it's not something I really believe in. I'm not sure that composition instructors really believe in it either. Those who specialize in rhetoric and composition generally present themselves as something other than champions of proper spelling and grammar. And students can learn how to write in courses whose primary focus is on something else, such as philosophy or literature. They won't go from illiterate to literate in one course, but they can improve if they have to read and write well written stuff throughout their education. Learning foreign languages is likely to help too. As Rosenberg notes, though, the incentives in place favor devoting time to research rather than to teaching. (And "good teaching" often means engaging teaching rather than challenging teaching, which is another thing I would change if it were up to me. Not that engagement is bad, but it's not the only good.)        

Part of the problem, surely, is that the education we offer is too largely based on the choices of the uneducated. If we offer a major in money-making they will sign up. If we offer a major in doing one's duty they won't (unless they are especially self-righteous). This is why people major in business. As long as we only let people study things that are worth studying, and require them to study things that ought to be required, then there's no problem. A core curriculum of something like two literature courses, two history courses, two philosophy, one religion, one art, and two psychology (for instance) should do the trick. (I'm not convinced that college-level math and science courses for those who won't use them have any value, although something on what science is (not "just a theory") might be worthwhile.) Other courses could be required depending on the major (math for scientists, languages for humanists, for instance). We wouldn't necessarily have lots of people majoring in the humanities, but that's OK. 


  1. "Part of the problem, surely, is that the education we offer is too largely based on the choices of the uneducated."

    In Virginia?! (Asked/exclaimed the philosopher in Kentucky...who, by the bye, is from Arkansas...)

    No comment on Rosenberg. I guess I should read this so that I know with what exactly I'm in strong disagreement.

    1. I'm sure it's worse up North, but sadly yes, even here.

  2. a thought/gripe:

    the idea of imparting a need for further study seems important to me, despite the other clunkers ('baby logic'? really?). but it often seems to me like philosophy is no different from the humanities rosenberg wants to distance it from, when he basically describes undergraduate education as captured by the status-seeking preoccupations of its teachers, relative to their professions. when philosophers act as if they are experts in what their discipline teaches, how can it not communicate to students the idea that 'further study' means 'on the road to being a professional'? but few people will be professional philosophers, or want to. there should be more attention to a conception of our subject matter, or our discipline, that can make it convincing for students that further study is something they could pursue for themselves, rather than as a means toward a career in the profession. their lives are not going to be identical to their professions, so why should we only teach them a philosophy that identifies itself with the profession?

    so, teaching aimed somewhere between the choices of the uneducated, and the choices of academics.

    1. If the choice is between disciplines that inform and those that move then I guess Rosenberg would put philosophy in the former category, with the sciences. And then the professors are going to be (or seem to be) experts in what their discipline teaches. In a way they/we are, but philosophy is clearly not one of the sciences, so it's a misleading idea.

      What students want to study shouldn't be completely ignored, but there is something to be said for others telling them what they need to know. So, yes, teaching aimed somewhere between the choices of the uneducated and the choices of academics (not politicians or administrators, preferably).