Higher Education

the humanities' strange exceptionalism

I think it’s fair to say that the University at Buffalo is a technocratically-oriented institution. I suppose the word “technocrat” rarely has a positive connotation, especially when used by a presumed humanist like me. OK, but for the moment let’s make this word more value neutral. Around 10% of our majors are in the arts and the humanities, around a third are in communications, psychology, and social sciences, and more than half are in STEM or business. So, you get the picture.  The UB student population shows its preference for developing technical expertise with its feet. On my campus the statement that “humanities are not for everyone” would appear to be a gross understatement.

Here’s another angle though: are humanities professors also technocrats? Our disciplines are also organized around particular kinds of technical expertise, right? Aren’t literary criticism, rhetorical analysis, historical investigation, and philosophical argument all forms of technical communication once they reach the level of scholarly publication? In some respects we’ve pursued this technocratic moniker in our desire for our scholarship to be valued in the same ways as our colleagues across the quad, in our pursuit of increasing specialization, and so on. We all know that “engineering isn’t for everyone.” We watch students wash out each year. It’s a challenging and technical discipline. Do we stylize the humanities in the same way? That is, does our curriculum seek to mirror STEM in the same way that our research has? So when we say “the humanities aren’t for everyone,” do we mean that the humanities represent a kind of impractical course of study (in comparison with STEM or business) and thus not what many students appear to want? Or do we mean that the humanities are a narrow set of technical practices, analogous in their accessibility to engineering or business, and thus not for everyone? Or maybe both.

In the good old, bad old days, that are still alive in some places, English was a default major, especially for women. Now, nationally it seems the default majors are psychology and communications. Students certainly aren’t entering those majors because they lead to good paying jobs: on average those BAs pay about as well as English. In English departments we may worry about low enrollments but we also wring our hands over the notion of becoming a default major…. English isn’t for everyone.

Why not?

Isn’t it a little strange that the humanities isn’t for (most) humans? What have we really gained in our pursuit of an identity as an elite technocratic set of disciplines? In my view, there’s no challenge in designing an English class so that it is too difficult for the average student to take. In fact, graduate students do it all the time, out of inexperience or perhaps a desire to demonstrate their own technocratic expertise, to be like their mentors.  What would it be like–not to return to the good old, bad old days–if English was a refugee major, a site of intellectual refuge, a place that was for everyone? To the extent that we value the education our broken family of disciplines can offer, it isn’t because of the market, professional, or even cultural value that our technocratic skills (of interpretation, critique, or archival research) possess. Nor is it the cultural capital of what we might know of our beloved books. I would venture that it has something to do with expression. If I were to say what I feel I got out of my education, not only BA, but MA and PhD., it wouldn’t be the ability to deconstruct this or critique that. I can do those things, but so what? It certainly wouldn’t be my ability to do well on a GRE trivia test of literature. It would be the capacity I developed to think through problems and get things done with language. Am I describing a technocratic skill? I don’t think so. It’s not that specialized. So what if English wasn’t the replication of our technocratic skill set? What if English really could be for everyone rather than yet another discipline that prided itself on the elite, technocratic abilities of its students? What if it were democratic instead?

I don’t know that I have seen any studies that particularly identify why students don’t choose to study English very often. We can all guess. There are a lot of guesses, or more accurately there are a lot of people who all guess the same things. English doesn’t lead to a job. Students (these days) don’t like to read or write (except of course they do read and write more than my generation did, just not things that count). So let me put that differently: students don’t value the literacy on offer in English departments. I suppose this leads me where I always seem to end up when I start thinking about these matters: maybe students have a good reason to question the literacy we are offering them. Maybe it could do with some updating (maybe!). But maybe we should also rethink the technocratic qualities.

It is not only the students who think that English isn’t for them. It’s the discipline as well.

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