Thursday, February 26, 2009

Respect for humanities, not humanities, in decline

The New York Times is wringing its hands over the decline in the humanities, and, as usual, Dean Dad nails the flaw in the argument, noting that the money quote, near the end of the piece, states that the number of humanities degrees has remained constant for the past ten years.

The real problem is that for much of the past decade, the culture isn't listening to what the humanities have to teach. Let's just take a few examples from English, American history, rhetoric, and philosophy, shall we?
  • Rhetoric. A culture that took rhetoric seriously wouldn't have fallen for the fallacious arguments (concluding with "He tried to kill my dad!") that had the U.S. searching for terrorists in Iraq instead of Afghanistan just because "Iraq had better targets." Some columnist said at the time that by that logic, you should look in the garage for the keys you lost in the driveway, because the garage has better lighting. But by stating contrary propositions on different days as though they were fact--and were reported as such with a straight face by, yes, The New York Times and other news media--enough people were duped to lead the country into an unstoppable series of events.
  • Writing. An economic culture that took writing and language seriously (not to mention math) would have said that the Emperor of Derivatives had no clothes. Difficult terminology doesn't necessarily mean that you're stupid for not understanding it. It may mean that the language, as Orwell predicted, is designed to hide chicanery--and so it was.
  • Literature. Speaking of Orwell, those who had read 1984 in one of those despised humanities courses would know what was being said, when, after 6 years of being told "stay the course," we were told that the president was "never about stay the course." It's the same as being told that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia in Orwell's novel, as Leonard Pitts pointed out at the time.
  • Philosophy--logic and critical thinking skills. An education in critical thinking skills would have told a prospective homebuyer that paying no money down + no interest + more money than she makes in a year = massive FAIL. The figures don't add up, didn't add up at the time, and will never add up. Did the executives at Countrywide and the other mortgage lenders really not grasp this?
  • History. The only glimmer of historical memory in all this is the refusal of the U.S. population to go along with the dog-and-pony show of 2004-early 2005: "Let's privatize Social Security! C'mon, it'll be fun! The brokers will make a fortune! And the stock market can never go down, so what's to worry about?" Somebody, somewhere, had a dim recollection of October 1929 and subsequent events, and enough of those people refused to go along with the hype so that the cumulative disasters mentioned above weren't compounded by this one.
So to all this talk about cutting back on the humanities because they aren't useful, I would say this: they aren't useful if you don't use them. If you do, and if we had, we'd be in a much better place in this country right now.


Anonymous said...


Bardiac said...

Oh, very yes!

If only THIS were printed in the Times!

pacifist viking said...

If you ever teach logical fallacies, the rhetoric in favor of war in Iraq was a boon of concrete examples.

Anonymous said...

"The number of humanities degrees has remained constant for the past ten years." If the university population, the number of universities, and the number of Ph.D. holders all increase over those ten years, then that is a decline.

undine said...

Z, glad you're on board with it!

Bardiac, why EVER would they publish this when they have Stanley Fish opining away? (Don't answer that.)

Joe Fischer, I thought that at the time but was a little reluctant to use the examples lest I be accused of politicizing the classroom. I did point out, at one point, that Operation Iraqi Freedom was supposed to be Operation Iraqi Liberation until somebody noticed the acronym (oops) and changed the name.

Alex, that's true, and I hadn't thought of that. I'm not presuming to speak for Dean Dad, but I'm assuming that he's thinking that a true decline would be more precipitous than this.

Professor Zero said...

a) I think Dean Dad missed it. I my main dept. the # of majors has been constant but it is now a lower percentage of total majors, and yes the administration has noticed and said we have to improve ... to which I said, well then don't tell students not to start studying a foreign language until sophomore or junior year, if they didn't have a language in high school (most high schools don't offer them) then they have to start as freshmen and do study abroad, otherwise there is no way they can major with us unless they go on the five or six year plan.

b) on Iraq - yes, I was also afraid to use those examples for that reason. Which is of course ridiculous and shows the poor logic and assaults on academic freedom of the Right. But I know the university would have supported the students over me. The fact that we don't dare educate
in the humanities just goes to show what sorts of inroads the Horowitz types have made.

c) I recommend sending it in, anyway, at least as a letter if not as an article. It is far more interesting than Fish.

d) The problem, though, seems to me to be that we aren't really allowed to educate in the Humanities to any interesting degree. People don't want us to be able or authorized to teach logic, only explore soft feelings and things like that. They think interpretation is just opinion, and that opinion is necessarily unfounded. They believe these things very deeply and cherish those beliefs. We need jobs and majors and are asked to cater to these beliefs. Result: we don't get to actually teach or showcase what are in fact our strengths.

undine said...

You're right again, Professor Z. A constant number does mean a decline--sigh.

And on d): absolutely right about logic vs. opinion. "Can you find support for that in the text?" "No, but I still think that--"