humanities: bottom line or end of the line?

Perhaps you have seen this recent Wall Street Journal report revealing the bottom line production of various departments at Texas A&M. Or the latest xtranormal video titled "So You Want to Get a PhD in Humanities," which has been circulating Twitter and Facebook (if not the video is below the fold). They are two of the latest missives in this ongoing debate about the fate of the humanities.

The WSJ piece is curious in that it wants to target the "Milton scholar" teaching five students in an upper division course, but when one looks at the chart in the article. English and History are in the black, while other departments like Aerospace Engineering and Physics lose money, despite the promise of grants. Beyond that, regardless of the size of a Milton class, I'm sure English and History serve significantly more students than Engineering or Physics both in general education and as majors. And though the report does seem biased against the humanities, it also notes

And among those with diplomas, just 31% could pass the most recent national prose literacy test, given in 2003; that's down from 40% a decade earlier, the [US Dept of Education] says.

So there seems to be a fundamental disconnect here. On the one hand, the humanities get targeted as expensive and superfluous. On the other hand, they actually make money and it would appear that their services are desperately needed by college students. So where does this disconnect lie? Perhaps it is really several disconnects.

One such disconnection is dramatized in the video. The undergrad asking her prof for a recommendation letter to go to grad school imagines a life of the mind that is ultimately solipsistic. She says she wants to study death and Emerson or whatever. And what is her motivation? She's good at it (i.e. she got an A on her paper)? She enjoys it?

A common explanation for the impending death of humanities is to blame theory, which makes us esoteric, or to blame Marxists or other political types or to blame conservatives who think we are all Marxists (which I suppose is to blame Marxists indirectly). But I would say humanities problem is well-dramatized in that video. Our research is disconnected from any but the most narrow of interests, and this is really quite strange when you think about it. Our time is replete with cultural challenges begging for humanistic intervention: living in a globalizing culture, understanding people who are different from us, communicating in all the myriad ways available to us, sifting through all the media and information we receive, addressing the ethical dilemmas of technoscience, establishing an effective civic rhetoric, etc. etc. etc.

Of course any research project requires a more narrow focus than those topics, but the rhetorical duty is to connect our research with the problems we all encounter. Doing this in the classroom is just as important. The humanities is fundamentally an educational project, and I think we've lost that to some degree. I'm not saying humanities can save the world but maybe an improved education in rhetoric/communication and ethics reduces the likelihood of oil spills, financial meltdowns, and government graft. 

Anyone who is in the humanities can tell you that it is an intellectually demanding job. It's hard brain work to do this stuff. But in the end, the fact that one works hard isn't enough. Spending seven years studying and working hard to write a dissertation on Emerson and death, as the character in the video proposes to do, is not enough (not to pick on Emerson btw, that's just the video's example). We are surrounded by problems to which we can bring humanistic knowledge, research, and teaching. We just have to get at it and reconnect with a public that recognizes these issues of cultural literacy, rhetoric, and ethics but has forgotten that this is what the humanities is about. 

You can't blame the general public though; I think we've forgotten as well in our high-speed chase down the rabbit hole of hyperspecialization.

I've been thinking a lot about these issues in relation to my own work. Certainly I have my specializations… in digital media, in particular theories/methods. But I have to remember how these connect with more generally recognizable issues, such as the challenges of communicating, research, working, and socializing through networks, which in turn are part of my general questions about how education, civic rhetoric, and workplace communication will operate. I need to be able to move up and down this rhetorical spectrum of audiences and purposes in relation to the work I do.

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