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Classics and the "Crisis" in the Humanities

There has been much ink spilt recently about a “crisis” in the humanities. In the New York Times alone there have been articles and a “Room for Debate” discussion of the “crisis.” Steven Pinker has weighed into the debate in The New Republic, generating ripostes from Leon Wieseltier in the same publication and Gary Gutting in the New York Times. Heated debate among readers can be charted in the comment boards attached to all of these publications.

The facts that generated the discussion seem clear cut: only eight percent of college graduates specialize in the humanities; at Stanford, where forty-five percent of the faculty sit in humanities departments, only fifteen percent of the students major in those departments; Harvard has experienced a twenty percent decline in humanities majors over the past decade; and so on. As the title of the New York Times article puts it, the picture is one of interest in the humanities “fading” among students. Most of us in Classics have no doubt seen a decline in the number of students majoring in our field, so that characterization to be appears real.

Explanations for the “crisis” have been quick to appear. From the right end of the political spectrum comes the argument that the humanities analyzed themselves into irrelevance with the navel-gazing postermodernist turn in the 1980s and 1990s. When students showed up to learn about the wonders of Periclean Athens, we are told, they were bored senseless by sermons on oppressed women enduring the partriarchal horrors of Athenian society. When they came to read the timeless works of Cicero, they were treated to lectures on how authorial intent doesn’t exist and all textual understanding hangs on the (gender, race, class) biases of the reader. So students started staying away.

Steven Pinker offers a variation on this line of analysis (though not from any particular political perspective). His contention is that the postmodern critique of science in certain humanist quarters, often allied to contempt for science and scientists in those same quarters, turns students off and has deterred humanists from employing potentially useful lines of inquiry informed by scientific understanding. Art History, he says, should be using the sciences of vision and perception to deepen its understanding of the appeal of art works, literary critics should be versed in linguistics, cognitive science, and/or behavioral genetics. It is through such convergences that the humanities can rescue themselves from inreasing isolation and join the wider debates. But, he laments, “[M]any humanities scholars have reacted to these opportunities like the protagonist of the grammar-book example of the volitional future tense: ‘I will drown; no one shall save me.’ Noting that these analyses flatten the richness of individual works, they reach for the usual adjectives: simplistic, reductionist, naïve, vulgar, and of course, scientistic.”

A different approach, this time from the left of the political spectrum, blames the increasing corporatization of universities that sees students as customers and majors as little more than a range of products competing for student-customers in an educational free market. The insidious nature of this development works against the humanities when it is set against the broader societal view of what constitutes education: degrees should be “useful” and lead to gainful employment in directly related fields, education is therefore increasingly defined as science and math and ITS, and so STEM is promoted at all levels with nary a word about philosophy, art, history, or (dare we say?) classics.

While disagreeing about the root cause(s) of the humanities “crisis,” most are agreed that the outrageous increase in education costs for students in recent years is a major contributing factor. Students habitually leave college burdened with tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Why major in “useless” subjects like Latin or Greek or classical archaeology at a cost of $40,000 a year, only to emerge shouldering crippling debt and little or no realistic prospect of gaining employment? Is it any wonder that so many of my students, when asked what they want to do, reply “business,” or “pre-med,” or “law”?

There is another perspective entirely on this whole “crisis”: there is no crisis.  Benjamin Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, argues that the statistics, when read in perspective, actually show the humanities holding their own in the face of increasing college enrollments over the past few decades. There are natural fluctuations in the popularity of all major subjects: computer science majors fell forty percent between 2004 and 2011, but there was no media hysteria about a “crisis” in ITS education that threated the very existence of computer science as a viable university degree. What really matters is that interest remains strong among students in the profound and timeless issues addressed by the humanist disciplines, so that even if majors are currently in a slump in some humanities subjects, class enrollments are overall healthy. Rather like Polybius, Schmidt believes Tyche will turn and once again favor the humanities. There is no need for panic.

I am sure most of the readers of this blog have strong opinions on these matters and have interesting tales to tell from personal experience. To which analysis do you suscribe? Or do you have your own take? If so, what is it? Should we, as classicists, embrace the competition for students in a market place of majors? Would it force us to be more “relevant”? Or should we fight against the corporatization of education? If so, how and to what end? Is the answer that we “get back to basics” and teach more of the traditional classics instead of material from a gender, ethnic, or class perspective? Or should we all start taking science classes?

I invite people to post comments to this entry sharing their perspectives and stories. We might get a dialog going on this important issue. I look forward to reading your responses.

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