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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Comments (7)
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  • Naaron says:

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

  • 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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