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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Sunday, July 14, 2013

WSJ: Who Ruined the Humanities?

Humanities DepartmentWeekend Wall Street Journal:  Who Ruined the Humanities?, by Lee Siegel:

You've probably heard the baleful reports. The number of college students majoring in the humanities is plummeting, according to a big study released last month by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The news has provoked a flood of high-minded essays deploring the development as a symptom and portent of American decline.

But there is another way to look at this supposed revelation (the number of humanities majors has actually been falling since the 1970s).

The bright side is this: The destruction of the humanities by the humanities is, finally, coming to a halt. No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature. No longer will the reading of, say, "King Lear" or D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" result in the flattening of these transfiguring encounters into just two more elements in an undergraduate career—the onerous stuff of multiple-choice quizzes, exam essays and homework assignments.

The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist's chair. In their numbing hands, the term "humanities" became code for "and you don't even have to show up to get an A." ...

I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works' mortal enemies.

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If we ever lose the humanities, we will probably lose applicants to positions on the Supreme Court, since nearly all of them have majored in wishy-washy humanities and few, Breyer excepted, have any expertise whatsoever in STEM or Economics.

Posted by: Jimbino | Jul 14, 2013 11:15:33 AM

Real "humanities", as in Liberal Arts, is anything but wishy-washy. Logic, Mathematics, Grammar, Classical Languages... it's only in the last couple of decades that "humanities" has come to be regarded as the province of lesser and lazy minds. Philosophy majors consistently have the highest SAT scores of all major fields, and I don't know many Econ or Biology majors that could survive a semester of full-on symbolic logic.

Posted by: Abe Humblebug | Jul 14, 2013 6:24:33 PM

Jimbino, I always considered mathematics to be part of STEM, not humanities or liberal arts, that is what the M part is for. But you make a decent point on logic, grammar, languages, and philosophy. And you also make a good point that modern humanities mostly does not teach any of that stuff, and if they do they do it badly. Humanities is failing because the politicized hacks that now teach it have lost all academic rigor, and mostly just teach leftist propaganda.

Posted by: richard40 | Jul 14, 2013 7:02:20 PM

The radical Leftists that infested academia turned the study of literature into nothing more than grievance mongering. Those wicked dead white males had to be put in their place, so literature was reduced by a kind of mental battery acid to nothing but gray, formless lumps that said "WIMMIN!" or "GAYS!" or "PEOPLE OF COLOR!" on them.

And the Deconstructionists were even worse, turning literature into nothing at all but self-referential navel gazing. How long will it take a typical undergraduate to toss in the towel when he(she) is told that every "text" he/she reads is "about the text" and that there is "nothing outside the text."

No, literature can't teach you a thing about other times and other places and other people. It's just a text telling you inter-textual things about texts. Yeah, boy, that makes me want to read more. You?

In the end, they were hoist on their own petard as the Orcs in the Lit Department stabbed their own profession in the heart, drove the students away, and now the jobs are few and far between. I feel SO much pity for them.

Posted by: peterike | Jul 14, 2013 7:16:58 PM

I would say, "Humanities professors who write this horribly."

Posted by: Barking Unicorn | Jul 14, 2013 7:55:35 PM

The battlefield of life is pretty much as it always has been, and we have much to learn from brighter minds who struggled across it before us.

Posted by: PacRim Jim | Jul 15, 2013 1:18:08 AM

If we lose the Humanities, we lose the light, air, joy and hope that must sustain us through later life and our onerous and unpleasant careers in law...

I agree with the idea, though, that less postmodern fiction and deconstruction and socialist/feminist analysis of the novel can only help liberal arts to endure.

Posted by: MJ | Jul 15, 2013 3:47:12 AM

Mathematics was traditionally a core subject of the humanities, known primarily for its value as an artifice of the mind and pure logic, less for its utility. As it has become the core of our technological and information science revolution, mathematics has been moved over into the "practical" category of study. It still remains the most magnificent artifact of human creativity.
While I am offended by what has happened to the "humanities" over the last decade or two or three, I am most angered by how it has diminished the sense of the importance of literature, history, philosophy to a real education. The level of ignorance encountered among the most elite educated young professionals about the most basic artifacts of human culture and history, and the contempt that is openly shown for such learning, is disturbing, and it will only get worse. The effects of this "unmooring" of our society at the highest levels from any shared cultural or philosophical heritage will have profound effects over time. Indeed, I think we are seeing profound effects even now.

Posted by: Abe Humblebug | Jul 15, 2013 6:22:05 AM

Humanities probably died for me in 11th grade American Literature AP- where we were expected to read a great work or two a week- and then regurgitate an essay that agreed with the teachers preconceived notions.

In a two week period I received a C for a paper I put in a huge amount of thought an effort- and an A for a paper I pounded out on what I knew the teacher wanted to hear.

Pretty much gave up on literature since- only so much guilt I can take from a tenured teacher who had their summers off while my dad was literally breaking his back as part of the patriarchy.

Posted by: Mastro | Jul 15, 2013 7:19:16 AM

Here's what ruined them for me. The constant "What do you think the author meant by this?" or "What imagery is the author invoking?" or "If Obama was Romeo, who would Mercutio be?".
Just as the frog in a pond is much more enjoyable to me than the dissected one on the lab table, a poem, a play, a novel, is much more enjoyable to me prior to being dissected in the humanities classroom. There is no "right" imagery or meaning, but you wouldn't know that by attending any modern lecture on the classics.

Posted by: Diggs | Jul 15, 2013 8:25:41 AM

Though a physicist, I too value humanities, having formally studied law and religion. Many of my famous colleagues, from Oppenheimer to Einstein and Feynman, were also students of humanities.

But it seems strange to me that there are nothing but Jews and Roman Catholics on the Supreme Court, and none but Breyer in recent memory has ever shown talent or accomplishment in STEM or Econ.

I have had the sad task of trying to teach college baby-STEM (no-calculus) to aspiring lawyers and doctors who are taking the watered down classes so as not to compromise their GPAs. They never really applied themselves and never really learned STEM.

Of course, there are patent lawyers and medical researchers who are skilled at STEM, but when I need a lawyer or physician, I have to choose from a highly inferior pool, like that of SCOTUS.

Diversity will be seen as a joke once all practicing Justices, lawyers and physicians are STEM-less Jewish and Roman Catholic English and history majors.

Posted by: Jimbino | Jul 15, 2013 9:45:32 AM

Siegel’s article Who Ruined the Humanities speaks to the features and purposes of teaching literature, and claims roughly that we can appreciate literature without being taught theories or philosophies of reading. His own education was impressive, under such well-admired scholars as Frank Kermode. But in this article he implies that he could have done without any formal education. I maintain that, done right, teaching literature adds several layers of appreciation to literature, past the plot and/or fantasy in the mind of the reader. For a quick example, one of my teachers pointed out that I may not be reading the correct “version” of Hamlet, that there were several “texts” for me to choose from, quartos and even editions of the Folio, that the “text” had a history of its own. That teacher was Fredson Bowers. Would I have “known” that otherwise? Maybe, by looking at the notes, but that is the same thing. I couldn’t just sit under a tree and absorb Hamlet, without considerable guidance to the subtleties—lectures on “ocular proof” in the Elizabethen Age, the use of men in women’s roles, etc. Further, Professor Bowers pointed out the difference in “speech acts” between reading the text and hearing and seeing it performed – for example, Hamlet’s garb, all in black, is not noted for several lines after his entrance, until Gertrude says “Hamlet, cast thy nighted colors off.” These are easy, quick examples of the value of literature instruction.
Now, as to quizzes and tests, demanding that the reader remembers details, this is a byproduct of a much more sinister aspect of college and of the free enterprise system: the requirement that the professor grades the student’s grasp of the material. Setting aside the student’s honor code, the only way to do that is to ask the student to “demonstrate” his/her absorption.
The question resolves itself when we separate “education” from “vocational training.” Ideally a college’s curriculum begins with the former – how to think, how to organize, how to express, how to interpret, etc. – and gradually specializes in a discipline – how to analyze what is wrong with the engine, or how to organize the steps of an autopsy, or how to communicate with the client, or how to translate a business into a course of action --. If the first two years are heavy in “education” and the second two years are heavy in “vocational training”, that may explain the popularity of two-year colleges. The real change has to come from the employer – can this candidate think? Organize? Express? Etc. – good! Then we can use him/her in our firm. Is he/she fluent with our specific discipline (car repair? Law? Engineering? Etc.) – Good! Is he/she a master of this discipline (graduate and post-graduate work level?) – Good! Right now the prospective employer “assumes” the candidate can think, but that may not always be the case. As for humanities disciplines, their application in the free enterprise system may be limited (museum curators vs. accountants), but the value of the “learning to think” phase of their education should be marketable. Does a Fortune 500 company need somebody who has read Moby Dick? Perhaps not, but they certainly don’t want someone who hasn’t read (or can’t read) Moby Dick. And the real measure of the quality of a college (what is meant by “a college education”) is how well its students can “think”, no matter what the discipline, This may be what we mean as well by “the failure of the K-12 system in America.”

Posted by: Tom Taylor | Jul 15, 2013 11:59:21 AM

Humanities will survive outside of college, where students struggle mostly struggle with it as an obstacle to where they're realling traveling. I now voluntarily and eagerly read more primary and secondary history, philosophy, classics, etc. in each year then I did during any "full-time" year as a liberal arts major (with the exception of language, which in any case I've forgotten since). Expert guidance was more hands-on of course, but as an 18-22 year old, I wasn't listening, absorbing or appreciating anything, becasue of other compulsions and because I just wasn't ready. Age and experience have given me what most great authors assumed their audience would bring to the table.

18 years olds should go straight to work and then everyone take a 2 year break for liberal arts school at 50.

(Speaking of art, Professor Caron if you have not yet visited the Getty Villa right down PCH from you, you are missing a treat. And if you are not enjoying the beaches, well... I just don't know what to say.)

Posted by: Yo Gabba Gabba | Jul 15, 2013 2:28:53 PM

I'm very sorry about the terrible writing errors, I blame inattention to my liberal arts education.

Posted by: Yo Gabba Gabba | Jul 15, 2013 2:30:10 PM