Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What Really Goes on at College: the humanities are overrated

Here is a part of an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that came out today:

“The results of an important new cross-disciplinary survey of humanities departments make it clear that the humanities remain popular with students and central to the core mission of many institutions . The bad news: The survey found less-than-rosy job prospects for the rising generation of scholars. The good news: the great majority of the humanities departments surveyed—87 percent—said that their discipline was included in the core requirements at their college or university.”

I would find this article hilarious if it weren’t so sad. But it is a very good example of what is wrong with our university system. There are no jobs for English and History majors and no faculty openings for PhDs in those fields, but nevertheless the humanities survive at universities. How do they survive? By making the humanities offer required courses that every student must take.

There is nothing wrong with the humanities in principle. We imagine that people might learn more about life, to be better people, to understand issues that have plagued mankind, and be able to think well what it means to be human. So the humanities must be good stuff right? Here are some courses picked at random from the Yale catalogue:

ENGL 265b, The Victorian Novel
ENGL 158b, Readings in Middle English: Language and Symbolic Power
ENGL 305b, Austen & Brontë in the World
ENGL 336b, The Opera Libretto
HIST 166Ja, Asian American Women and Gender, 1830 to the Present.
HIST 168Ja, Quebec and Canada from 1791 to the Present.
HIST 201Ja, The Spartan Hegemony, 404-362 B.C.
HIST 202Ja, Numismatics.

I am sure that these are fine courses taught by serious scholars. But that is exactly my point. When people glorify the study of the humanities they fail to mention that these are scholarly subjects of very little use to the average college student. Universities require that students take them because universities don’t want to fire the professors they already have and they need to teach something. But, with a few exceptions, they are not teaching students to think better about life, they are teaching students about a narrow part of the scholarly domain in which they do research.

Here again we have the clash between the research university and what students expect to learn when they go to college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education represents professors and they think its great news that students are being required to take the courses that professors want to teach. I think this is awful news. Students need to learn to live in the real world. There are very few scholarly jobs so there is no practical reason to teach such courses. If these course teach human skills, as we all assume, that would be great, but they don’t.

Scholars need to stop running universities.

As I have said many times I don’t think Yale has to change. We need to produce some scholars after all. But there are 3000 colleges in the United States all copying Yale’s model.