Sunday, July 14, 2013
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.