An interesting article from the NY Times:
One idea that elite universities like Yale, sprawling public systems like Wisconsin and smaller private colleges like Lewis and Clark have shared for generations is that a traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation. Rather, the critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop have a different purpose: They are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice. But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency. 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.
Already scholars point to troubling signs. A December survey of 200 higher education institutions by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody’s Investors Services found that 5 percent have imposed a total hiring freeze, and an additional 43 percent have imposed a partial freeze. In the last three months at least two dozen colleges have canceled or postponed faculty searches in religion and philosophy, according to a job postings page on Wikihost.org. The Modern Language Association’s end-of-the-year job listings in English, literature and foreign languages dropped 21 percent for 2008-09 from the previous year, the biggest decline in 34 years.
The article continues:
With additional painful cuts across the board a near certainty even as millions of federal stimulus dollars may be funneled to education, the humanities are under greater pressure than ever to justify their existence to administrators, policy makers, students and parents. Technology executives, researchers and business leaders argue that producing enough trained engineers and scientists is essential to America’s economic vitality, national defense and health care. Some of the staunchest humanities advocates, however, admit that they have failed to make their case effectively.
The effectiveness of the case, naturally, is to be made against those who accuse the humanities of being largely impractical and irrelevant to the needs of the “new” economy. The article offers but one “solution,” one that demands a re-branding of sorts:
The study of the humanities evolved during the 20th century “to focus almost entirely on personal intellectual development,” said Richard M. Freeland, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education. “But what we haven’t paid a lot of attention to is how students can put those abilities effectively to use in the world. We’ve created a disjunction between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals.”
Mr. Freeland is part of what he calls a revolutionary movement to close the “chasm in higher education between the liberal arts and sciences and professional programs.” The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently issued a report arguing the humanities should abandon the “old Ivory Tower view of liberal education” and instead emphasize its practical and economic value.
However, Anthony Kronman and Andrew Delbanco connect the humanities current social, political and economic circumstances:
But “the need for my older view of the humanities is, if anything, more urgent today,” he added, referring to the widespread indictment of greed, irresponsibility and fraud that led to the financial meltdown. In his view this is the time to re-examine “what we care about and what we value,” a problem the humanities “are extremely well-equipped to address.”
To Mr. Delbanco of Columbia, the person who has done the best job of articulating the benefits is President Obama. “He does something academic humanists have not been doing well in recent years,” he said of a president who invokes Shakespeare and Faulkner, Lincoln and W. E. B. Du Bois. “He makes people feel there is some kind of a common enterprise, that history, with its tragedies and travesties, belongs to all of us, that we have something in common as Americans.”
Ok. Fair enough. Yet, there is another tack we could take in thinking through the claims put forth in the article besides thinkig of it as a false problem created by politicians and culture warriors (e.g. the gap between liberal arts and “sciences”), that is to say, yes, the humanities have no practical (economic) value and moreover, who cares. Really, immersing oneself in the humanities probably lacks a coherent economic value. So, if the value of the humanities is determined solely from an economic (practical) outlook it only makes sense that when the humanities come out of the wash the will certainly be valueless. So, at bottom, it’s possible that the value of the humanities rests in the very refusal of instrumentalization. Most students will not pursue advanced degrees for the sake of learning and will find themselves in the workforce, which demands instrumentalization. So, the value in the humanities may simply rest on the rather simple and obvious idea that “value” does not mean “instrumentalization/utility/practicality. In fact, it refuses that structure altogether (and provides the tools to do such). However, the problem with this is that it plays back into the critics who snark that studying Kant and de Tracy is merely an affectation of a luxury class.
Perhaps the article is correct in raising an issue: that is, that we need to better integrate the humanities into the general curriculum. A friend of mine who works outside of academia is always complaining about the pathetic writing skills of the people who work for him –these people are for the most part recent college grads—as well as an inability for independent thinking and initiative. I also know of biology PHDs who can’t write worth a damn. Now, anecdotal evidence aside, the incremental rise of higher education since the second world war would appear to validate the end of academic elitism on the one hand, while reinforcing notions of democratic education and social mobility on the other. Yet, as is well known, Bourdieu has argued that schools simply reproduce class relations by reinforcing instead of diminishing class-based gaps with regards to access to both social and cultural capital. This is certainly evident at many institutions whose student body is predominantly lower/middle class and come from families not part of the meritocracy. Given this scenario in which democracy and egalitarianism is confused with “access,” one of the central challenges–as Stanley Aronowitz (somewhere) puts it–is to address precisely how we might transform schools from “credential mills” to a “site of education” that prepares students to see themselves as active participants in the world. While Aronowitz provides broad structural solutions and possible avenues for reform, the question takes on an added force for educators: what are we as teachers to do in the classroom to bridge the gap between education and social class in order to prepare students to be “engaged” citizens? If that’s a coherent goal for a college/university education,then the curriculum needs to reflect such a goal. I know, a very traditional (naive) idea.
Part of the problem we face, I think, is that the idea of “practical/applicable value” rests upon an assumption that education=input-output which coheres to a set of rules. We then become experts based upon this set of rules impressed upon us from which we spit back various manifestations of said expertise. The problem is, as we are experiencing right now with the er…down economy (although quasi-reactionary missionary Thomas Friedman has actually been talking about this kind of idea for a long time), the rules of the game are constantly morhphing and becoming complicated. Such paridgm shifts or why not, trauma, needs a language. Are not the liberal arts a rather good source? Again, perhaps if the liberal arts do anything, they offer a way of organizing trauma, posing questions and understanding the world around us, which in a perfect world, cashes out in terms of critical thinking and civic engagement.
Yet, I’ve said it before: perhaps the liberal arts (well, philosophy) are just like any other activity, like say, gardening. This is ok, has anybody had to give a defense of gardening?