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Friday, June 12, 2009

Tough times

OK, so here’s my very-belated response to that New York Times essay, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” I tell people that if they didn’t see that article this time around, don’t worry—it’ll come back.  In fact, I think I remember the exact same essay being published ten years ago, quoting the exact same people, only then the headline was, “In Flush Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” Because then we were in the middle of a robustly globalizing economy and a vertiginous dot com boom—who in their right mind would choose to get a liberal arts education in times like those?  And now that the people in the advanced financial sector of that globalizing economy have plunged us all into crisis, somehow the humanities have to justify their worth.  Well, I can tell you what’s going to happen ten years from now.  The U.S. will be at 100 percent employment, and we’ll have national health care; the Israel-Palestine conflict will be over and done with, and the facilities will almost be ready for the 2020 Olympics in Jerusalem; and we’ll have these great cars—not cars that run on water, mind you, but cars that run on toxic waste and produce fresh water, so that the more you drive, the more you wind up helping to combat cholera in developing nations.  It’ll be a great time, I promise.  And people will still be wondering: why bother with the humanities?

There are two weird things about this article, however.  One is this:

Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities”—which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.

Followed by this:

The humanities’ share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the heyday in the mid- to late ’60s, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new database recently released by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Currently they account for about 8 percent (about 110,000 students), a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade. The low point for humanities degrees occurred during the bitter recession of the early 1980s.

As I have argued many times, with a steadily increasing sense of exasperation, if you start from that “heyday,” then of course you’re going to wind up with a narrative of decline and fall.  Because that heyday was a brief statistical blip, an anomaly in the history of the republic.  And then between 1970 and 1980, enrollments in the humanities bottomed out very quickly, for reasons we don’t quite understand; all we know is that enrollments in the social sciences and physical sciences dropped precipitously as well.  But if you start from 1980, we look perfectly all right, and . . . hey, wait a minute, what’s this about a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade?  You mean, even through the economic downturn of 2001-02?

And then there’s this: 

The humanities continue to thrive in elite liberal arts schools. But the divide between these private schools and others is widening. Some large state universities routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities, Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus and a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College, reported. At the University of Washington, for example, in recent years, as many as one-quarter of the students found they were unable to get into a humanities course.

OK, so the humanities are thriving at some places, but at others, we have to turn students away.  I thought everybody hated us because we’re irrelevant and ugly and our mothers dress us funny and we have to justify our worth?  Hmm.  Perhaps we’re getting our budgets cut and our faculty lines frozen and our confidence (never high to begin with) rattled despite the facts that enrollments have held steady nationally and we have to turn students away from courses they want to take?

And I love the humanities continue to thrive in elite liberal arts schools.  By Moloch’s wounds, February 24, 2009 must have been the slowest news day since the last retreat of the great ice sheets, a day on which we couldn’t even find any dogs biting men.  Might it not be the case that there’s a self-selection process going on here, whereby people go to elite liberal arts schools precisely because they want the kind of broad, general, hard-to-justify-in-quantitative-terms education you get at such places?  Where the classes are small and you can take more than one course with the same professor over four years, developing actual intellectual relationships with members of the faculty?  I’m trying to picture a scenario in which it’s news that science education is in crisis ... but the sciences continue to thrive at Caltech and MIT.

More on this theme next week.  For tonight, it’s in tough times, Crosby and Malkin must justify their worth

Posted by Michael on 06/12 at 11:25 AM
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