Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The humanities again

A friend has called this essay "smart, passionate, and research-driven." (Why mention that it's passionate?) Anyway, I could resist responding by secretly blogging my disagreement, but I won't.

In the essay, Eric Hayot, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies at Penn State, takes a careful (or at least careful-looking to me) look at some of the numbers involved in the state of the humanities in American universities and colleges. He points out, for instance, that "the low point of humanities degrees as a percentage of overall degrees came not in 2014–15 but in 1985–86," which suggests fluctuation rather than the crisis or steady decline that we often hear about. On the other hand, he also delivers some seemingly very bad news: "At many institutions the decline in humanities majors since 2010 is over 50%, a phrase that I can barely bring myself not to italicize, put in all capital letters, and surround with flashing lights." This is all interesting, and he gives some plausible suggestions about why it is happening. So far, so smart and research-driven. But then we get to his proposed solutions.

At the undergraduate level he has four (for programs at the graduate level his suggestion is: "unless you are placing most of your students in the professorial jobs for which you are training them, you need to rethink what you are doing"):

1. teach the humanities, not the disciplines
2. experiment with courses, departments, and programs
3. don't give up on the students
4. justify and explain what we do

I'm probably not going to argue that we should give up on the students, but otherwise I have a lot of disagreement to express.

Here's the first half of what Hayot says about teaching the humanities rather than disciplines:
The data suggest that enrollments in the humanities are falling far more slowly than the number of majors, because, I suspect, of the continuing appeal of humanistic questions: What is friendship? What does it mean to have a good life? What is justice? How do feelings work? Does history have meaning? Are we alone in the universe? What does it feel like to be a migrant? Students are less interested—as far as I can tell—in topical courses that promise coverage of a geographic region or historical period, in courses like The Modern Novel or Medieval Europe.
Students also like classes that tell them how to do things—how to eradicate world poverty; how to live a satisfying life; how to create political change. None of these would be strictly history or English or philosophy. I think that’s a feature, not a bug: my guess is that the humanities are going to survive by expanding and extending their general interdisciplinarity, by realizing that the separation of disciplines produces appeals to certain kinds of expertise that at this point may not be enough to retain our traditional audiences. Our market has changed; we probably need to change with it.
That's my emphasis. Things are not so research-driven here. The questions in the first paragraph are philosophy, philosophy, philosophy, philosophy/psychology, philosophy, physics/biology, and possibly literature. Not "the humanities," exactly. The things in the second paragraph that students want to know how to do are things that, roughly speaking, no one knows how to do. How (and whether) we can eradicate world poverty is a question of economics. How (and whether) we ought to try to do so is a question of philosophy (specifically the branch of political philosophy concerned with distributive justice). How to live a satisfying life is either psychology or philosophy (specifically ethics). How to create political change is something you might learn in a politics course, although if you're hoping to learn how to change the world rather than how to change one particular policy or law then you are likely to be disappointed. So far as Hayot's suspicions are right, they suggest that students should be offered a lot more philosophy and social science courses, not general interdisciplinarity.

Under suggestion #2, Hayot recommends courses like some that have proved very popular at Penn State and Harvard. But how to make a course popular is a bit of a mystery, and probably has to do with individual charisma, which some of us just don't have. (The Harvard course he mentions is the one on which this book is based, which, once again, is a philosophy course.) Here is most of the rest of what he says under this heading:
Making the kind of curricular changes I’m proposing is difficult because of institutional inertia. Who would approve the courses? Under what rubrics would they be taught? Here faculty members and administrators need to work together to create experiments in departments and programs. What if, for instance, a dean offered a group of faculty members (let’s say ten to fifteen) who could make a viable proposal the opportunity to create a new humanistic program focused on undergraduate education? What if those faculty members could spend five years, supported with a course release or two and a bit of research money, working to create new courses that would either answer the big questions or introduce students to majors in a broad and appealing way?
Of course such a thing might not work! But what we have now is not working either. It would be really great if we could populate the country (or the world) with experiments like this, knowing that we can all learn from their successes and failures and copy from them what makes a difference.
This will never happen. And not only because of institutional inertia. I've already explained why there is good reason to think Hayot is barking up the wrong tree. Believing this to be the case is not mere inertia. Even if one agreed with him, as many non-philosophers in the humanities, I think, would, there is no way that people would be given that amount of time and money and course releases to develop a new program. (I was involved in the design of a new program at my school. We were given one summer to do it.) And what do you do if, as seems likely (given the nature of experiments), the experiment does not work? Anything you undid cannot easily be brought back, anything done cannot easily be undone, and what do you do with any undergraduate majors in your new, failed program? It's a recipe for disaster. What works in one school will not necessarily work in another, either (nor will what fails at one school necessarily fail at another), so there is a limited amount of learning from others that can be done.

Hayot's third suggestion, the sure to be controversial "Don't give up on students", is about teaching. We should, he implies, expect less of them than we have in the past because students are reading and writing less before they get to college. And we should take teaching more seriously than we do (at schools that do not take it seriously) in tenure and promotions decisions. It's hard to disagree with this. There's no point blaming students for what others have failed to teach them (because of government insistence on standardized testing, etc.). And teaching is obviously important. But it's also very hard to measure good teaching, as Hayot seems to recognize, and many schools (e.g., mine) already care a lot about teaching when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.

Finally, Hayot says that:
Every single class in the humanities should include some discussion about what the humanities are and why they’re worth something; it might even include information about salaries and employment issues, since our students (and their parents) often care about those a great deal.    
I disagree with this, because I disagree with his idea of the humanities. That idea seems essentially to be that people with PhDs in English (and maybe some related fields, such as Comparative Literature) should teach courses in philosophy (and maybe some other fields, related to the topic of the course), because that's what students seem to want. I do believe that English is worth something. As is Comparative Literature. As is history. But if the humanities is what Hayot seems to think it is then I'm not at all sure that it has much, if any, value. People with expertise in literature should teach literature. People with expertise in rhetoric should teach rhetoric. And so on. By all means let's offer a mix of humanities courses and respond (to some extent) to what students seem to want to learn. But if that's philosophy or economics or politics let's say so, and act accordingly. "General interdisciplinarity" is another name for mush, for the unqualified teaching students presumed too ignorant to know that their teachers lack the relevant expertise. "Let the blind lead the blind" is no way to save anything.


  1. One thing Hayot says that I don't think I mentioned above is that a course in, say, literature, is likely to involve some reference to history and philosophy. That's true, and I don't see anything wrong with it. Likewise, a philosophy course is likely to involve some reference to history and, quite possibly, to literature. But he wants to expand these references so much that courses become neither literature nor history nor philosophy but a blend of the three. As well, no doubt, as other things. A big problem with this is expertise. For accreditation purposes and, I believe, by law (at least in Virginia) to teach a subject at the college level you have to have taken at least 18 credit hours of courses in that discipline at the graduate level. (Translation: you have to have taken about six post-graduate courses in the subject, which in practice probably means that you have an MA or equivalent.) There is a good reason for this rule. If we start teaching blended courses instead then either we will need to go back to school to become qualified or else unqualified people will be teaching college courses. If this lack of qualification seems not to matter it suggests that things have already been dumbed down significantly, to a level that would be dubious in high school and that seems criminal at the college level. But perhaps I'm being over dramatic.

    Someone on Facebook recently suggested that general education courses could be based on reading long reads and watching informative TV shows. I was shocked at first, then thought that this sounded like how you might prepare for a General Studies A-level (a sort of general knowledge and critical thinking test for British high school students.) And some gen ed courses are meant to be something like the equivalent of British A-levels. So maybe that's not so bad. But it would have to be no more than one or two 100-level courses.

    In their desperation to attract students I think there's a real danger that humanities programs are going to make themselves so dumbed down that no one will pay to study in them. I wouldn't want to pay to have my kids read non-specialist magazine articles, watch some TV, and chat about it a bit with a non-expert. Nor do I think employers would be impressed by a qualification earned by doing this kind of thing. But maybe I'm being too grumpy or old-fashioned, or misunderstanding what is being proposed. I hope so.