How to Keep the Humanities Alive

As state universities cut programs, the debate is on

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As Stanley Fish recently noticed in The New York Times, universities are cutting humanities programs left and right. SUNY Albany is cutting the entirety of the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs, and, when one considers the budget constraints of even private universities recently, the situation looks likely to spread. (Though perhaps with gestures less dramatic than SUNY Albany's). In a rotten economy, when people put the intellectual emphasis on utility, how does one persuade universities to keep humanities alive? How does one persuade students to head for a history major?

  • Persuading the Public of Humanities' Worth  It's a tricky problem, admits humanities professor Stanley Fish in The New York Times. "If your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities." The public doesn't see the point of "Byzantine art" programs to begin with. Arguments such as "humanities make our society better" or "contribute to the economic health of the state--by producing more well-rounded workers" aren't really convincing to many. So: what to do, as funding is pulled from university humanities programs? University heads need, at the very least, to speak out--currently they're all too complicit in the evisceration of these departments:

The truth is no one in public life cares for the humanities as an academic enterprise, although public officials most likely do care for books, movies, operas and TV, and like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians. ... [I]t is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.
  • Why Part of the Problem Is Tuition  "Universities are engaged in an arms race" to draw the best students, and "this means incessantly inventing new programs," argues Stanford French professor Dan Edelstein. But whether in the U.S. or in Europe, which is also dealing with rising costs, "students will be far less willing to take risks when they're paying a fortune to enroll." It's sad, because "the irony, of course, is that a B.A. in French or classics provides students with many of the qualities that employers most commonly request, such as critical thinking, cultural proficiency, and good writing and communication skills," as well as perspective on the good life. "But if universities continue to charge as much as they do, they will progressively steer students away from the very subjects that, until recently, constituted the very core of the university." So "until the tuition imbalance stabilizes" he suggests departments look at new ways of "ensur[ing] their survival"--looking into broader courses for non-majors, perhaps.
  • That's Also Why Humanities Are Down in Core Curricula, Too  "No one wants to be forced to pay for something that won't help them pay their debt back," observes blogger BooMan, who thinks the only way to save the humanities is "to make them a reasonable investment" by lowering tuition. He also adds that he's not "sure it makes sense to go to college at all unless you're going to study scientific disciplines, business, medicine, or law."
  • A Vicious Cycle of Advertising  James Joyner at Outside the Beltway hates the "insistence on turning higher education into vocational training. But, when you sell it as a way to get ahead in the job market," and an expensive one, "you have to deliver results."
  • Actually, Those Who Do Major in English Do Fine, notices Edward Tenner in The Atlantic, looking at a Wall Street Journal report on satisfaction with career paths by major. "English and History are slightly above Marketing and slightly below Civil Engineering. In fact, English at 44 percent is not so far below Finance at 47 percent." Thus, he concludes, these "degrees are not the prologues to flipping burgers that some people suppose. Many students are using degrees in humanities to launch satisfying careers." He thinks perhaps reestablishing humanities' link to other fields like business may be the key, recalling the cases of prominent non-academics who have made use of Hegel and the like. He thinks humanities can prove their monetary worth, and there's nothing wrong with saying so:
Does reminding people of the practical uses of English, Philosophy, and History reduce these fields to crass economic objects? As someone who has taken the scenic route, I'd follow the sociologist Erving Goffman, whotold a Marxist colleague he had no problem with the other side in their negotiations commodifying them "as long as they treat us as expensive commodities."
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