Saturday, July 13, 2013

At WSJ: Education ain't what it used to be, or why the humanities shouldn't be taught

Over at The Wall Street Journal is an article  so clickbait-worthy for humanities professors that I hesitate to link--but hey, why not let you see for yourself?

"Who Ruined the Humanities?"

First of all, I think this is the same article they run every month under a different title and by-line. It goes something like this:
When I was at beautiful Ivy or Oxbridge back in the olden days, I had an extremely famous professor (this time: Frank Kermode) who inspired me with the timeless truths of the humanities curriculum. 
Alas, there were few such professors then, and there are none today. That pesky GI bill opened education to the masses, and now students want grades instead of reading literature for timeless truths. Literature has been sullied by the grade-grubbing paws of these students. Where is the pure love of literature of yesteryear?  
Now, I have a certain sympathy for the author's love of literature because I obviously think it's important, too, and what he says about the thrill of books--yes, I get that.

But is the best way to get students to have this relationship to books, where the books help them to experience their lives in different ways, to avoid teaching the humanities?

I'm imagining students, taking 15 credit hours, working 20 hours a week at Mickey D's. What happens if you toss them a copy of The Odyssey or Henry IV, Part I, and say, "Here, kid, this will change your life. Read it in your spare time"?

Maybe they'll read it, if they have the spare time of a Thoreau.

But context counts.  Reading together counts, and talking about ideas with other people who've read the same books counts, doesn't it?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I couldn't even bring myself to read that article. I get so tired of the WSJ's anti-intellectual bias, which is hypocritical because the paper also seems to assume its readers want to send their children to the very universities whose education the WSJ constantly decries.

undine said...

Dame Eleanor, what I get from WSJ is that they don't like education *for the masses* and that they're dismayed that the clubbiness of yesteryear has gone away.

undine said...

It's like the Sven Birkerts post I wrote way back when: if you don't automatically already have the class privilege that lets you lounge around in bookstores or read literature, then you shouldn't be taught.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I'd argue that in-depth discussion of literature survived in the academy well past the point where the GI bill let the masses in. In fact, the GI Bill (and state university tuitions low enough, and blue-collar wages high enough, that a student could actually work during the summer and earn enough to allow him -- and probably also her -- to concentrate on clases during the school year) made such discussions possible, by allowing students to concentrate on their studies. I'd argue that high tuitions, loans, and the 10 (or 30 or 40 or 50) hours of paid work students take on to try to afford them are doing far more to foster an instrumental view of education, and to undermine the sort of in-depth discussion that is possible when students take time to both read and think (also sleep and eat decently and exercise), than the makeup of the student population (in fact, especially having had some experience of legacy admits at Ivy League schools, both as a student and as a teacher, I don't think the changing makeup of the student population is a problem at all).

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Well, both of you have a more nuanced view than I do. I get so fed up with the WSJ that I don't really think through a position, just roll my eyes again. And yet I find a lot of their news coverage, as opposed to the opinion pieces, considerably better researched and more thoughtful than the NYT, which is often overly anecdotal for my taste.

undine said...

CC--I'd completely agree; in fact, the wholesale acceptance of the New Criticism was, I've read, partly a way to encourage this in-depth reading on the part of people who hadn't necessarily been exposed to the classics. I'm saying that *WSJ* sees it as a problem, not that I do.

Dame ELeanor--now that I've summarized the form, I don't think I'll need to read them any more, either.

chacha1 said...

Oh, I can't even read opinion pieces from WSJ; they just flip every one of my switches.

Sounds like this one is indeed a retread of the same old nostalgic BS about the Good Old Days.

It is mighty hard to learn to love literature/reading for its own sake when your entire K-12 government-mandated educational experience consists of multiple-choice and standardized tests.

And as CC says, it is mighty hard to indulge in long-form reading, let alone discussion, when your schooling runs concurrently with full-time work.