Which of These People Will Save the Humanities?

At many colleges, humanities enrollments are down. So far down that schools such as one University of Wisconsin campus are scrapping entire humanities departments. What can academics do? Two pundits this week have suggested different solutions. We have a different proposal to make.

savior 1

…is it students reading Beowulf?

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein makes a counterintuitive proposal. If humanities programs want to survive and thrive, Professor Bauerlein argues, they need to woo freshmen and wow their parents. As he puts it, “right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.”

You might think the way to do that would be to lighten up on grades and assignments. Offer an easy A and students will line up…right? Professor Bauerlein describes a program that does the opposite. Teachers at the University of Oklahoma have revived W.H. Auden’s 1940s-era syllabus. It forces students to do a ton of reading and reflection. And the students seem to like it.

Bauerlein’s conclusion? Make humanities courses unapologetically difficult. Stop apologizing for Western Civilization:

Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.

Could it work? Maybe. I’ve stopped being surprised by the numbers of students who want to be challenged. Yes, many—maybe most—students approach their classes as mere hurdles to be overcome to get to the next goal. But a reliable stream of students want something else.

savior 2

…is it budget-controlling conservative hawks?

From across the pond, we get a very different prescription for saving the humanities. At Times Higher Education, Musa al-Gharbi gives us another idea. If we want to save classes in philosophy, sociology, history, literature, etc., al-Gharbi says, academics should court conservative politicians. After all, when conservatives think humanities departments have been taken over by leftists, they will not hesitate to close them down. And then progressives themselves suffer. As al-Gharbi puts it,

It is generally women and people of colour – usually progressives – who pay the cost when administrators are encouraged to weigh into political disputes. These same groups will also bear the brunt of continued erosion of public trust in institutions of higher learning.

The value of scientific fields is widely appreciated, but social research is a different matter entirely. Given that women, people of colour, LGBTQ scholars and leftists are better represented in the humanities and social sciences than in most other disciplines, they will disproportionately suffer when social research is devalued and defunded.

In other words, if we want to save the humanities, we need to help influential conservative politicians see that courses in history, literature, and so on are not merely training grounds for leftist radicals.

Could that work? In Wisconsin, at least, the shutdown of Stevens Point humanities courses was a direct result of long-simmering conservative outrage. Cultivating conservative political support for humanities classes might help maintain budgets.

I’ve got a different suggestion, though. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher education, there is one constant truth about higher education in these United States. Whether students choose a fundamentalist college, an Ivy League redoubt, or a community-college approach, a driving factor in student decisions has always been professional credentials.

Heather Gerken

…or is it someone different?

That is, whatever college students choose, most of them (or at least, their parents) insist that their work must lead to a better career. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges fail when they can’t deliver on that promise. The same is true for humanities programs. Some humanities courses are thriving. At Yale, for example, history is back as the most popular major.

Why are students flocking to history courses at Yale? As Professor Bauerlein argues, many of them are likely attracted by the intellectual rigor and challenge of the major. And, as Prof. al-Gharbi explains, some of them are probably intrigued by the ideological diversity of academic history. The bulk, though, are hoping that the history major will situate them well to apply to law school. That’s been the tradition for long years.

So who should academics be trying to convince of the value of humanities courses? Is it freshmen looking for old-fashioned intellectual challenge? Or is it conservative politicians looking askance at faculty politics? I think both ideas have merit.

But if humanities programs really want to survive, they need to convince students, parents, and law-school deans that their programs are the best way to fulfill the most important purpose of American higher education: preparation to move up the career ladder.

Advertisements
Previous Post
Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s