the rise and fall of the English major editorial

What is one to think when one’s career becomes the subject of newspaper editorials? It’s old news for academics and the humanities and all too common in recent years. Here are three more: David Brooks and Verlyn Klikenborg in the NY Times and Steve Strauss in the Huffington Post. All follow upon the Academy of Arts and Sciences recent report on the humanities and social sciences, The Heart of the Matter

Brooks observes:

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

So that’s the conservative story of the humanities: we fell into decline because of this shift from the universal to the political. It’s an interesting story and is made convincing because at the very least this shift and the downturn in majors occur simultaneously.

Here’s Klikenborg’s version:

STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.

Once we extricate Moby Dick from that passage, it’s about the effects of hyperspecialization in our field, which takes professors and their students away from the core value of an English education. What is that value? It isn’t quite the same as Brooks. It’s slightly more utilitarian: “critical thinking” and writing.

Strauss moves fully into the pragmatic realm arguing for the employability of English majors: “They know how to think, to think for themselves, and how to analyze a problem. Business majors are fine, but they are preoccupied with theory, proving themselves, and doing it ‘right.’ But the English majors are used to getting a tough assignment, figuring it out, and getting it done, (usually) on time.”

The Academy report is unsurprisingly more circumspect. Ultimately saying the humanities are important but we don’t want to tell universities or faculty how they should teach it, only that they need to do a better job of conveying the value.

At a time when economic anxiety is driving the public toward a narrow concept of education focused on short-term payoffs, it is imperative that colleges, universities, and their supporters make a clear and convincing case for the value of liberal arts education. This case needs to be made to every relevant audience: students, parents, governors and legislators, and the public at large. These audiences need to be reminded that the most successful Americans have typically benefited from such broad-based training, with early experiences often paying off in surprising ways; and that the ability to adapt and thrive in a world certain to keep changing is based not on instruction in the specific jobs of today but in the developing of long-term qualities of mind: inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, the ability to put a received idea to a new purpose, and the ability to share and build ideas with a diverse world of others.

I am reminded of my colleague Jeff Rice here. I can imagine what he might say here about the stories we invent and then rehearse around a problem. I know many of my colleagues in English and across the humanities like to believe these stories about literacy, critical thinking, creativity, and citizenship. Even in the business community there is faith in these stories to some degree, though there is also some insistence that new employees have specific technical-professional training as well. And it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation that a college graduate ought to develop all these traits. Maybe a business, engineering or other professional school professor reading that list of “long-term qualities of mind” would want to say that his/her major develops them too. Or maybe s/he does think that’s the job of the humanities, arts, and sciences.

It’s hard to deny the value of those “long-term qualities of mind,” in part because they fit so powerfully into our narratives about “the most successful Americans.” It’s a compelling feedback loop, but, in my view, the future of higher education sits somewhere outside this story.

Klikenborg notes that in 1991 the top two majors are Yale were history and English. I got my BA from Rutgers in ’91, in history and English, and they were the top two majors there as well. It’s like something happened in the middle of the 90s that made the disciplinary paradigms of the humanities begin to seem obsolete. Hmmm… I can’t imagine what it might have been. The Academy report does place an emphasis on the digital age, but more as a delivery system for the traditional values and content of the humanities, which it imagines to be evergreen. For as much as the humanities have given up on the universal values that Brooks still cherishes, it still holds on to the universality of the skills it purports to provide. As such, the stories continue to go spin.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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