Humanities' Ills

You can hardly blame students for shunning the humanities when graduates can't get a job. But the real solution isn't more "required courses."


The humanities are in deep trouble at America's colleges and universities. Since 1970, to cite some indicative figures, the number of English majors has fallen by 57 percent, the number of philosophy majors by 41 percent, history majors by 62 percent, and modern language majors by 50 percent.

A lot of people, however uneasy about the situation, accept it as inevitable. A liberal arts education, on this view, is nice enough, but not very useful. Students graduating with a degree in the humanities these days will like as not end up driving cabs. The liberal arts have declined on campuses across the land because students have wised up.

But other people think something should be done about the sorry state of the humanities. They've found a defender of their cause in William Bennett, the new secretary of the Department of Education, transplanted there from the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

At the NEH, Bennett was the author in 1984 of a much-discussed report on the issue, To Reclaim a Legacy. Citing figures like those on the decline of humanities majors, he concluded that the humanities "have lost their central place in the undergraduate curriculum." As a result, Bennett worried, "too many students are graduating from American colleges and universities lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge about history, literature, art, and philosophical foundations of their nation and their civilization."

On this view, it is important to revive the liberal arts education even if it's not very useful to students when they graduate. And the way to do it, in Bennett's book, is to improve the teaching of the humanities, returning to assignment of classic works, and to require students to take these courses, as in the old days.

In fact, however, the issue is not great jobs versus the Great Books. A closer look at "the traditionalists'" explanation, offered by Bennett, for the decline of the humanities shows that the diagnosis is wrong and the prescription therefore inappropriate. And a look at the real explanation for the decline shows a misperception in the widespread notion that the humanities, whether they should or shouldn't be revived for other reasons, are not very useful. Students are not leaving the humanities in droves because they want marketable skills whereas in the humanities' heyday they were less job-oriented. They are leaving the humanities because a liberal arts education no longer offers marketable skills, as it did in the old days—the intellectual skills that men and women need to prosper in a free society.

Dr. Bennett's Diagnosis

In the NEH's report in 1984, Bennett offered two explanations for the recent decline of the humanities. First, they are being poorly taught by undereducated graduate students and by tired professors who are too preoccupied with their scholarly research to care about their pedagogical duties. Bennett echoes William Arrowsmith, a professor of classics at Emory University and a member of the NEH panel that helped Bennett write his report. A generation ago Arrowsmith wrote a famous essay for Harper's in which he pointed out that instruction in freshman English is usually done by teaching assistants, not by professors. Arrowsmith called this "The Shame of the Graduate Schools." And it is.

Shame though it may be, however, it cannot explain the abandonment of the humanities for "practical studies" such as business and engineering. For unlike English, such humanities subjects as classics, philosophy, and religious studies are usually taught by full-time professors, who are often as enthusiastic about their teaching as about their scholarly activity; yet these subjects have also suffered a marked decline in enrollment.

Moreover, recent studies indicate that undergraduate students may actually prefer being instructed by graduate students, who are usually nearer their own age. In any case, schools of engineering and departments of computer science are overflowing with students who complain bitterly about the pidgin English of the foreign-born graduate students who teach them while the professors of engineering and computer science fatten their wallets consulting for private industry or researching for the government. Whatever students may think of graduate instructors, the cause of the decline of the humanities lies elsewhere.

Bennett also attributes the misfortunes of the humanities to so many schools having jettisoned the so-called core curriculum, or required courses. He bemoans the fact that fewer than half our colleges require foreign language study for the bachelor's degree. Only 14 percent require the study of classical civilization. And only 28 percent require students to take a course in American history or literature.

Bennett believes that the once-widespread practice of requiring all students to take courses in history and philosophy instilled in the public the belief that these courses were important; abandoning these requirements conveyed the message that they were no longer essential to a well-rounded education, and students have simply responded accordingly.

This line of reasoning may be pleasing to those of us who wish to see our livelihoods protected by the reinstitution of a core curriculum requiring that the courses we teach be made necessary for a diploma. But it ignores an important piece of counterevidence: The core curriculum was weakened or abandoned in most universities by the early 1960s, but enrollment in the humanities did not begin to erode until the late '70s. Although languages lost large numbers of students immediately, the rest of the humanities actually prospered and continued to do so for nearly a generation—as did the social sciences, which are now in nearly as much trouble as the humanities. Both groups of studies could certainly be helped now by being added to a core curriculum; but they were not hurt by being dropped from it.

Bennett fails to notice this uncomfortable fact because he has a political axe to grind. He is a conservative, and he is unhappy about the misuse to which the humanities and social sciences were put in the '60s and early '70s, when they were turned from forces for moral and political conservatism into instruments of social change. Where they had once familiarized their students with the great artistic, literary, and philosophical achievements of the past, the humanities became, in Bennett's words, "the handmaiden of ideology, subordinated to particular prejudices." Where they had once taught respect for traditional ideals, values, and standards, they now indoctrinated their pupils in liberal, leftist, or even Marxist ideology.

Bennett wants to reverse this development. He wants college students to learn about St. Augustine and Shakespeare, not Ho Chi Minh and Jane Fonda. He wants them to read The Republic and the Bible, not engage in discussions of affirmative action and abortion. After all, he says, "the highest purpose of reading is to be in the company of great souls."

It would indeed be good to have college students reading the classics again, but Bennett's proposal is suspect in several ways. In the first place, he assumes that students have the ability to read the classics and to benefit from doing so; this I doubt very much. Like most of my colleagues, I have long since (and very reluctantly) given up assigning original sources to freshman and sophomore students, something I did for nearly two decades. Now I assign very simply written textbooks that include brief summaries of the ideas that are stated more fully and eloquently in the classics themselves. I have never been happy about this, but I do it for one simple reason—many of the current generation of college students either cannot or will not read anything more complicated than Cliffs Notes. Many of them can't, or won't, even read textbooks. Their learning is limited to the material covered in lectures.

One wonders about the political motives behind Bennett's proposal. William Bennett is a conservative officer in a conservative administration that seems to regard the curriculum of the public schools, including public universities and colleges, as a prize it won in the last election. He is proposing, in effect, to use the curriculum for conservative moral and political purposes.

The public schools, however, are supposed to be ideologically neutral. In theory, they serve people of all persuasions and predilections; they do not cater to the interests and beliefs of particular religions or political parties. Using the public schools as an instrument of apology for the economic, political, moral, or cultural status quo is as illegitimate as using them as forums from which to preach the virtues of Marxism or the desirability of revolution.

Finally, the idea of a core curriculum is itself suspect in several ways. First, it reduces individual freedom of choice and personal responsibility, precious commodities that schools should encourage, not erode. Second, if the truth be told, few if any core curricula are determined on the basis of their educational merits alone. Instead, curricular matters are settled politically, usually by vote of the faculty. Like other people, university faculty members are likely to vote for proposals that favor them economically. No one is going to vote to eliminate his own job. We all want more money for our departments, regardless of how well we're performing our duties. So it's not surprising that many professors of engineering and computer science suspect that the new core curricula have been designed chiefly as welfare programs for impoverished departments of humanities and social science.

How the Patient Fell Ill

If Bennett's diagnosis is wrong, from what disease do the humanities suffer? And how can we cure them?

First, we must realize that the much celebrated decline of the humanities has taken place not in the private but in the public colleges and universities. The humanities persist in the schools of the wealthy; they are perishing in schools attended primarily by the progeny of the white- and blue-collar working classes. There has been little drop-off in the quality of humanistic education at Ivy League schools such as Brown, Dartmouth, or Yale, where departments of philosophy, cultural history, and polite literature still thrive. Nor have Catholic schools and universities suffered much decline. The downward trend has occurred almost entirely at public schools of lesser prestige: the universities of Southern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, Memphis State, and the like. To cite one example, the school at which I teach—the University of Alabama—has 20,000 undergraduate students and 6 full-time professors of philosophy. Princeton University, by contrast, has an undergraduate enrollment of 4,400 but has 19 full-time philosophy professors. The rich and the talented have not abandoned the humanities; it is the Protestant working classes that have gone off to apparently greener pastures.

Why have they done so? Remember that the humanities enjoyed a decade or more of rapid expansion before they began to collapse. During the late '60s and early '70s, American public higher education experienced the most rapid growth in its entire history, as the children of the working classes began enjoying college educations formerly reserved for the rich and the fortunate few with special intellectual talent. College education for the rich and smart has never put much emphasis on vocational training; it has traditionally included a variety of courses in the humanities and the fine arts. As the sons and daughters of the working classes entered college en masse, they were greeted by curricula designed for the wealthy.

But working-class kids are different. Unlike the rich, they do not inherit established law practices or flourishing businesses. They have to find jobs working in somebody else's law practice or business, at least at first. And they are more likely to get those jobs if they have studied practical subjects such as tax accounting or electrical engineering rather than medieval philosophy or French belles-lettres.

It was not always so. For a very long time, employers were glad to have anybody with a college diploma. It did not much matter where they got it or what they had studied. Any degree from any accredited institution would do. IBM would even hire a philosophy major. But such uncritical enthusiasm for college training evaporated. Today, a degree from a public university in the humanities or social sciences is virtually unmarketable; one does far better with a diploma in nursing or social work. For members of the middle and working classes, the humanities have become highly expensive luxuries. So such students and their parents have very sensibly resolved to put their money, time, and efforts into more profitable enterprises. If they are going to study something, it might as well pay off in the form of a decent job after graduating.

Why have the humanities proved so useless to the middle and working classes? When the core curriculum was abandoned or weakened in most schools, students were faced with a choice: take difficult or dull but practical subjects such as electrical engineering, physics, and accounting, or spend time studying such comparatively interesting but inutilitarian subjects as literature, religious studies, and urban criminology. These students had been encouraged to believe that a college diploma in any subject, whether hard or easy, dull or entertaining, was a ticket to prosperity. So they quite understandably bypassed the hard technical and scientific subjects for pleasantly diverting courses in the social sciences and the humanities. (This is why enrollment in these courses originally increased in spite of being dropped from the core curriculum.)

Greedy for the public funds that were being uncritically appropriated in pursuit of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the universities encouraged increased enrollment by making the humanities and social sciences even more attractive to students. Lectures and term papers gave way to bull sessions about current events; abstract discussion of political theory was replaced by inflammatory rhetoric urging political action; recondite questions about the role of law in the social order made way for urgent questions about the role of women in the workplace; statistical analysis of the causes and cures of crime was supplanted by vivid films on street life in the ghetto; and the average C was turned into the average B. For a few years, everybody had a grand time.

By the late '70s, though, the party was over, and everybody had a hangover. Employers who once gladly hired just about anybody with a university diploma, no matter the major, discovered that such diplomas no longer guaranteed competence. Not only did graduates in the humanities and social sciences lack vocational training, as such graduates always had; they now also lacked the intellectual skills that the study of these subjects used to give them. They could no longer even read and write! (My wife did not believe this until I took home copies of examinations containing not one well-formed sentence.)

Even worse, humanities majors often had smug, superior attitudes that made them virtually unteachable. They were more trouble than they were worth, so employers took to hiring graduates of schools of engineering and business instead. Sometimes they did this in order to get somebody specifically trained for their job. Often they did not—their desire was simply to hire someone brighter, more literate, better disciplined, more cooperative, and teachable.

So the conservatives are wrong. The humanities did not turn left so much as they went soft. They did not fail to teach respect for tradition so much as they ceased to teach the basic intellectual skills. Ideology didn't kill the humanities. Laziness did.

A Bracing Tonic

There is only one way to save the humanities and only one thing that would make them worth saving—humanities must be made useful again by being made rigorous. They must be returned to their basic task, which is—contrary to the William Bennetts of this world—not to instill respect for tradition but to inculcate the liberal arts. When students of the humanities and social sciences learn once again to read and write and reason, employers will once again want to hire them. Core curricula will be unnecessary. There is no need to coerce someone into taking something that he clearly needs.

This proposal runs contrary to the widespread conviction that vocational training is not the proper business of the humanities. Since the 19th century, the humanities have been conceived not as Naturwissenschaften (knowledge of things material and worldly) but as Giesteswissenschaften (knowledge of things spiritual and other-worldly). This conception holds that the humanities are artsy-literary pursuits for men and women of leisure. They are not training in the skills needed to understand the world and prosper in it; they teach only how to enjoy it. The emphasis is on appreciating material things, not acquiring them.

In a word, conventional wisdom both inside and outside the academy is that the humanities are high culture. If we want workaday utility, we should seek it from scientists, engineers, and businessmen; inspiration and refinement come from historians, philosophers, and men of literature. To make the humanities down-to-earth and practical would be to corrupt them by transforming them into occupational training. One might as well advocate making religion worldly and practical!

This attitude is romantic, snobbish, and self-defeating. If the humanities are training for leisure rather than work, then they are solely a leisure-class pursuit. If their value is aesthetic and inspirational rather than utilitarian and practical, they will continue to be shunned, and rightly so, by the children of the working classes. So long as they remain instruction in icing a cake, the vast majority of Americans, whose need is for bread, will have little use for the humanities.

But the snobs and the aesthetes have it all wrong. The concept of the humanities originated in the Renaissance, when literae humaniores (mostly classical Greek and Roman writings about man and this world) were distinguished from literae divinae (mostly medieval writings about God and the next world). The humanities were originally useful writings and were contrasted with the inspirational. Nothing required them to be pleasing but useless. On the contrary, men of the Renaissance read the humanities because they gave them access to Roman technology and Greek science, much of which had been forgotten or lost during the unenlightened and scientifically backwards Middle Ages. The patrons of the humanities liked Greek sculpture, painting, and poetry, but they were also eager for Roman knowledge of how to construct bridges, conduct wars, cure the sick, and administer cities. They admired art, but they understood the word in its ancient, broad, and class-neutral meaning, not in its modern, narrow, and snobbish connotation. To them, art meant skill as well as beauty and grace, technique as well as aesthetic refinement, practical know-how as well as high culture—the means and methods of nourishing the body as well as satisfying the palate, of baking bread as well as icing cakes.

The best way to revive the humanities is to return them to their original aim. The point is not to turn them into job-training programs. On the contrary, it is reasonable to fear that if they continue on their present path, the public schools and universities will become nothing but trade schools that train people in narrow skills to work in soon-to-be-obsolescent industries. These people will be unable to adapt to changes in society and the workplace because they will lack elemental intellectual skills. Skills that should be taught by the humanities.

The public education system is making people economically dependent. Wouldn't it be better to give them the wherewithal to stay free? Let us return both the humanities and the sciences, physical as well as social, to advancing and refining what used to be called the liberal arts—meaning, as the Roman emperor Cicero explained, the intellectual skills needed not by slaves but by free men. In short, teach students how to read, write, and reason well enough to earn a living at a freely chosen occupation and to choose a value system that will help them live full and productive lives.

Secretary Bennett is bothered that recent graduates of our colleges and universities don't recognize the names of St. Augustine and haven't read the works of Shakespeare. That fact bothers me too, but I am bothered even more by the fact that many recent graduates of our state universities cannot consistently write grammatical sentences or read and comprehend simple paragraphs.

Perhaps we could combine the two and teach students to read by having them read great books. That, alas, is not Bennett's primary interest. He wants to increase piety, not raise literacy. In the only reference to skills in his NEH report, Bennett says that it is not worth knowing how to read and write if you do not know what to read and write. The secretary has it all backwards. Teach people how, and they will know what.

Max Hocutt is chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alabama. He is the author of several books, most recently First Philosophy.