Bearish on the Humanities

Reading the press lately, you'd think the American university system is the next mortgage market. And the humanities? They're toxic debt. Here's a quick recap of the grim parade of stories:

  • Last week, The New York Times set the stage with this: an article detailing how students are drowning in debt, which raises the questions: Can students still afford America's expensive universities? And will banks keep making these loans? The Washington Examiner goes further and bluntly asks: Is a Higher Education Bubble about to Burst?
  • Next, in The New Yorker, a widely-read article offers this factoid: During the coming decade, most of the sectors adding jobs in the US won't require a college degree. So some academics (yes, academics) are left wondering, "why not save the money and put it towards a house?" Or, put differently, is a college education really worth the money?
  • The meme continues yesterday with David Brooks musing in an opinion piece: "When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job." "There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate." So why bother with a humanities education? Brooks tries to make his best case, and it's not a bad one. But I'm not sure that a younger generation is listening. And if you listen to this 2008 interview with Harold Bloom, they maybe shouldn't be.
  • And just to top things off: Stanley Fish launches his own defense of a "classical education," even if it "sounds downright antediluvian, outmoded, narrow and elitist." You get the drift. Another sign that the humanities is in a bear market.

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  • Naaron says:

    Don’t forget the skipping college article from the Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/weekinreview/16steinberg.html

  • I don’t think it is a specific problem of the humanities, it’s actually something that is affecting ALL fundamental research. Everything that does not fit the label ‘useful for society’ in a rather twisted way. Sad.

  • Tony says:

    This debate seems to be going on across all ponds, here in Australia’s top university: the ANU, we’re also fighting to ‘Save the Humanities’.

    And yes, research now seems to fulfill some perverse utilitarian ideal of what university study is supposed to be about.

  • Lynn says:

    The humanities are directly useful for society, it’s a PR and representational problem that they aren’t considered as such.

    I’m finishing my M.S. (HCI/Design at IU), and we borrow from the humanities to make our trade better, which in turn helps us create better technology, which eventually helps the world.

    In some areas and instances, the humanities field would do well to become more applied (i.e. business, design, social causes, etc).

  • Evan Plaice says:

    Interesting… I personally predicted that the educational bubble was the next to burst soon after the mortgage bubble popped; but, I assumed I was wrong since then because this issue has effectively existed under the radar over the past few years.

    My opinion is, the current state of higher education needs serious reform. Having a ‘generic’ set of courses/topics about ‘the humanities’ is a waste of time/money/effort to the majority of people entering the workforce. If the topics are really that important, teach them to all students through High School. It’s not like they take some greater degree of understanding to apply.

    The major issue here is, the idea of schools that teach trades is actively being sidelined by the larger educational institutes.

    The ‘real’ question is… Is it ‘worth it’ to spend 40-50k on a degree that contains 95% material you’ll rarely-if-ever use, and will still leave you completely unprepared for the workforce.

    Take Computer Science. You spend 4 years learning systems (good), high order math (alright), algorithmic logic (useful but not necessary), and do theoretical programming exercises that are 5 years out of date (100 years in programming terms) and have a strong emphasis on design patterns, abstract classes, and general architecture astronautical practices (really bad). So, not only do you leave school with little or no practical programming experience, but you have a big head to match because you’ve spent 4 years and x number of dollars to become a less-than-mediocre programmer.

    That’s not even including all of the really useless humanities cruft you have to sit through during your undergrad that have absolutely nothing to do with your field.

    I think that post k-12 educators have had a sweeping success at convincing everybody that they ‘need’ a college education to be useful in life. They’ve packaged humanities in a generic format that’s easy for the average undergrad to binge and purge. But, most of all, they’ve convinced people that taking huge debt to ‘buy a future’ is a generally accepted idea.

    If the degrees and institutions selling them take a hit, so be it. An exceptional education is supposed to be the exception not the norm.

    Don’t understand my angle? Try taking an undergrad ethics course. If that pre-chewed dumbed-down regurgitated crap is supposed to represent ‘higher education’ I don’t want any part of it. I actually like literature and have read Hobbes, Plato, and Lao Tzu in my free time of my own accord so I take it as an personal insult.

    Want to save higher education? Do us all a favor and bring back trade schools.

  • JOE SAILOR says:

    all the talk about humanities is Pre-Internet/web, I can google/search the best humanities courses in the world for free free free.

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