Tag Archives: humanities

Useful Knowledge

One of the great ironies of an age in which college attendance has steadily increased is the declining percentage of people attending those institutions who emerge with a genuine education. In the past, the “man of letters” (what should now be the “person of letters”) was widely admired; to be deemed a polymath was high praise.

I am a college professor. I’m pro-education. And I want to preface what I’m about to write by  emphasizing that I have absolutely nothing against job training, practical skills, or the transmittal of “useful knowledge.” The inculcation of skills and information required to obtain and keep employment is clearly an important endeavor–both for the individual and for society–and the increasingly technical nature of work in the 21st Century often necessitates a significant amount of training.

But both individuals and society pay a steep price when we substitute the transmittal of useful knowledge for a full, well-rounded education.

I was prompted to share this “reflection” (okay, rant) by a Ross Douthat column in the New York Times. I often disagree with Douthat, but he offers a thoughtful perspective on many of the issues of the day. In this column, he was mourning the eclipse of the Humanities by our all-consuming focus on technocratic subjects.

Douthat approvingly references a recent book about a group of Christian Humanists who were active during the war; he agrees with its author that neither Christian Humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the “spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.”

By coincidence, Jacobs’s interesting, depressing book has come out just after an interesting, depressing analysis of the steepening decline in the share of college students majoring in English, philosophy, religion, history and similar pursuits.

The analyst is a historian named Ben Schmidt, who just five years ago wrote an essay arguing that the decline of the humanities was overstated, that enrollment in humanistic majors had declined in the 1970s, mostly as women’s employment opportunities began switching to more pre-professional tracks, but that since then there has been a basic stability, at best a soft declension.

But now he’s revised his argument, because the years since the Great Recession have been “brutal for almost every major in the humanities.” They’ve also been bad for “social science fields that most closely resemble humanistic ones — sociology, anthropology, international relations and political science.” Meanwhile the sciences and engineering have gained at the expense of humanism, and with them sports management and exercise studies…

Douthat  suggests that the problem is “the one that Auden identified seventy years ago.” In a culture that is eager for “useful knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, “the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts.” So, he says,

they rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

Douthat would encourage the study of history and literature and poetry by reinvigorating the role of religion and metaphysics in studies of  the human condition. I disagree, but in any event, I think it’s safe to say that ship has sailed. In any event, the humanities do not need extrinsic or theological justification: as Alexander Pope admonished us,

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

 

When an “education” is limited to the transmission of technocratic skills–when we are teaching students how to derive the one correct answer to that math problem or the one correct way to program that computer–there is a very real danger that we are creating a culture in which every issue has a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer.

The humanities teach us to appreciate the complexities of human cognition, emotion and interaction. They require us to wrestle with ethical and moral questions in thorny and confounding context, and challenge us to see different perspectives and appreciate new insights.

 

They deepen our humanity, our capacity for critical analysis, and our humility.

 

You can be well-trained without ever studying the humanities, but you can’t be well-educated–and we desperately need a well-educated citizenry.

 

Defining Our Terms

These days, you can’t engage in cocktail party chatter or turn to a “serious” television program without finding yourself in a conversation about education reform. Everyone has a theory, and almost everyone has a culprit–the sad state of education is due to (choose one or more) teachers’ unions, poor parenting, bloated administrations, corporate privatizers, or the ACLU and its pesky insistence on fidelity to the Establishment Clause.

I’m still waiting for one of those conversations to turn to a pretty basic question: just how are we defining education?

Make no mistake: in most of these conversations, we are talking past each other. There is a huge disconnect in what people mean when they criticize education or advocate for changes in education policy. All too often, parents view education as a consumer good–skills they want their children to learn so that they can compete successfully in the American economy. That parental concern is far more understandable than the obliviousness of legislators and educators who want to assess the adequacy of high schools and colleges by looking at how many graduates land jobs.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with job training. But job training is not the same thing as an education. 

An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times–The Decline and Fall of the English Major–detailed “a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply.”

 What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

As a college professor, I can confirm the abysmal writing skills of most undergraduates. And as a former high-school English teacher, I can also confirm that an inability to express a thought clearly is usually a good indicator of an inability to think clearly. (When a student says “I know what I mean, I just can’t say it,” it’s a safe bet that student does not know what he means.)

People learn to communicate clearly from reading widely. Reading widely introduces students to the human condition, to different ways of understanding, to the importance of literature and history and science, to the meaning of citizenship, to the difference between fact and opinion. Such people–educated people–are also more likely to succeed at whatever they choose to do. But that greater likelihood of success is a byproduct of genuine education, not its end.

Unless the conversation about education reform begins with a discussion of what we mean by “education,” unless we can agree on our goals for our schools, we will be unable to measure our progress.

We will keep talking past each other, and looking for someone to blame.