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The elephant in the higher education room

This article and this article are two recent pieces that express distress at the current promotion of STEM fields in American discourse. The piece by Christopher Scalia specifically calls out conservatives (he regards himself as a conservative) for their over-emphasis on STEM fields and for "trashing" the liberal arts.

Let me say at the outset that my own degree (in English) and all of my publications are, officially speaking, in the humanities, although the majority of my publications are at a very STEM-like edge of the humanities (epistemology and probability theory). My husband is a professional philosopher, and I am an at-home homeschooling mother, so the humanities are, literally, our bread and butter. Moreover, I have great sympathy and admiration for (what I have heard of) a school like Thomas Aquinas College in California with its great books program.

In theory, I believe in the ideal of a well-rounded education that Christopher Scalia is promoting. In theory, I love literature, history, philosophy, and art history. In theory, I would love to see students gain a multi-faceted liberal arts education as college undergraduates to the extent that they do not already have that when they graduate from high school. They could learn to love and comprehend the great books of the Western canon and gain a deeper understanding of great works of art.

In theory.

In practice, the picture is far different. The elephant in the room, which I notice that neither Scalia nor Zakaria addresses, is all the utter dreck that is too often actually taught in the humanities.

When I obtained a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995, the rot was already firmly in place. In order to get my requisite graduate credits without taking Queer Theory and other postmodernism (which I did not entirely avoid) I had to do repeated independent studies with the last members of the old guard, all of whom are now long since retired or passed on "to the greater life." Most other relatively conservative students were not so lucky. And that was twenty years ago.

Why in the world should people who want to defend the humanities write as if this were not a reality? Why should we pretend that a student who takes a literature course at the majority of secular colleges (and even some Christian colleges) can be sure of learning worthwhile content when that is, at best, a gamble with a risk of big losses?

Authors who plaintively call upon conservatives not to "trash the liberal arts" are writing as if from within a time warp, as if what conservatives (and parents) are "trashing" is the Columbia University Great Books course circa 1955!

Now, I admit, this does all get bound up with the age-old question of whether one goes to college to get a credential for a job or not. And I admit that I am not neutral on that and that I am appalled at the level of student debt that young people take on. I would not advise a student to accept a large school debt even if he were getting a 1955-era Great Books course. And I would pragmatically advise such a student to consider what he intends to do after graduation and what his long-term plans are, in terms of a job or career. Not everyone should intend to go on to graduate school, especially not in the humanities, given the job market. Moreover, we have too few marriages taking place these days and too few young people who are thinking in terms of marriage and families.

So, yes, there is more to all of this than just postmodernism, and in the present socioeconomic milieu I'm going to be asking some tough questions about studying the humanities even when they are done right. (Let it be said here and now that I wouldn't encourage anybody to go deeply into school debt for a STEM degree, either!)

But a fortiori it is the rankest irresponsible insanity to encourage young people in lofty words to go off and "learn to learn" by studying the humanities when we know darned good and sure that most of them are going to learn utter baloney and have their brains turned inside out by such a study. Why pretend? Why send someone to major in something that will give him "post-colonial studies" (for example) as great depth, that will substitute ignorance, activism, and anachronism for whatever innate ability he previously had to read works of the past on their own terms? It would be far, far better not to take an official course and just to read the works themselves than to learn to read them badly. A course in Shakespeare that "does readings" from the perspective of post-colonial theory, queer theory, or any other faddish -ism is negative value. Become a plumber instead and read Hamlet in your spare time using Spark Notes to understand the tough parts.

Moreover, at the risk of ruffling feathers, I will say that even less radical "continental" approaches to a field like philosophy are of dubious value, and unfortunately some schools, in their dislike of analytic philosophy, have veered in that direction even when they do not embrace full-bore postmodernism. So it behooves the prospective humanities student to be wary even when considering a school with a reputation for upholding tradition or being politically and/or religiously conservative.

Another passing thought: It is a tad insulting to engineering majors (for example) to imply that they need to learn to learn by taking courses from humanities professors. Ideally, engineering courses and mathematics courses will also help students "learn to learn." That is not to denigrate the unique contribution of the humanities, well taught; it is simply to say that the cliche "learning how to learn" is not the best way to summarize that contribution.

The wars between the disciplines will probably never cease entirely, even with good will and good scholarship on all sides. I certainly have no simple suggestions for bringing those wars to an end. And the present pressure of economic factors is causing a radical re-evaluation of the assumption that all students should go to college, which is exacerbating the competition among disciplines. The present atmosphere is understandably making all the colleges whose very existence depends on more than trades and school-to-job ratios feel nervous and defensive, since some of them may literally not survive at all. That Cardinal Newmanesque defenses of the Idea of a University should crop up in the ensuing discussions is inevitable and not entirely pointless, despite the fact that in Newman's time nobody expected everybody to go to University. Nor was the university expected to provide the vast number of jobs for academics that it is now expected to provide. We cannot really expect even legitimate defenses of the value of the liberal arts to be sufficient to defend the sheer quantity of Western GDP that is currently poured into courses that bear the humanities label.

A frank discussion of all of these factors and of the future of higher education is necessary, and there is nowhere better for it to take place than among cultural, educational, religious, and political conservatives who are willing to speak openly of the trahison des clercs of the past decades. If such a discussion doesn't make a snappy op-ed for a major news outlet, no problem.

Comments (14)

Let's not lose sight of the fact that STEM majors are really the only bloc on campus today where the ROI is pretty good. Who is going to drop $60k or more on a degree in English that has prospects of $25k/year when $60k can buy a BS or BS+MS in Computer Science and starting salary can easily be $50-$55k? That's being very generous to many schools; most of the sad tales of student debt involve the humanities and social sciences. You never hear about STEM students crying about $80k+ in student loan debt because that debt usually correlates to a school like Stanford, MIT or CMU where a $80k-$100k starting salary is perfectly realistic for a good student to expect.

In short, you'd almost have to hate your own kids to recommend they major in a field that is going to be so expensive to learn, yield so little ROI and risk altering key life decisions like marriage and having kids due to staggering debt.

We're definitely going to get warring statistics, and you see some in that article. One that I do consider fairly irrelevant is that the salaries of humanities people in their late earning years tend to be fairly decent. As far as I can tell (and someone can correct me if I'm wrong) that's only measuring the winners, not the unemployed. Sure, if you were one of the lucky ones who ends up tenured or with the near-equivalent of tenure (some kind of auto-renewed full-time gig with full benefits), then, well, you're one of the lucky ones. But let's ask how many of those there even are when today's humanities graduates are in their sixties. Any statistic that is measuring presently employed humanities majors in their 60's is measuring something closely akin to the "tenure bump" from yesteryear, not the anticipated outcomes for people presently getting such degrees in their 20's.

Still, I'm willing to believe that to some degree the differences in RIO between humanities and STEM are exaggerated. And for that matter some of the sillier and more meretricious degrees might have _better_ job outcomes, because the world itself is getting sillier and more meretricious. Does that make it worthwhile to send your daughter to get a degree in women's studies? The question pretty much answers itself, at least for a person with good sense.

Because I have graduate standing in both the arts and the sciences, I can speak to this issue. Some humanities, such as music, are almost absolutely static in terms of how scholarship is done. Music may be used for political purposes, but the study of music, itself, has little politics in it. English, on the other hand, is rife with politics. It has a type of will to power in that it, often, seeks not objective truth, but subjective justification. In music, everybody has to play the instruments the same, so it is a great leveler, but in English, everyone is screaming to be heard and appreciated because there is no fixed musical score reference point which allows for very little re-interpretation.

In the sciences, at the graduate level, they won't even take you on if they can't support you and they give you five years of support, then kick you out. Period. You have be focused. You can't be philosophical or political. You have a short period of time to take coursework, pass prelims, and do dissertation work. No one acquires debt in graduate programs in the sciences, unless there are special circumstances.

In the arts, there is almost no support. Unless you are lucky enough to get the one or two teaching slots, you have to pay for everything out of pocket. I had to win the graduate research forum competition three times just to support my research. I got a small alumni award, as well, but considering that my research was the cover story of Science News and was covered by NPR and local news, it made no difference. There still was no support. The larger the undergraduate teaching burden, the likelier one is to get a TA, but it still is functionally impossible to do any on-sight research of an historical nature on that stipend.

Part of this, of course, goes back to the success of the STEM areas in WW II. Before WW I, the sciences (especially in the U. S.) were no better funded than the humanities. If you want to look at the disparity in salaries, look there, to start. The modern Internet developed from Arpanet, which was a military communication network.

Even today, there is no money for theoretical physics, but tons for climate studies, neuroscience, and biotech. It has rarely been financially rewarding to study one's true passion, but it has often been the case that one can slither up to it. There is no money for humor research. There is a ton for depression research, despite the fact that they share the same neurobiology. Go figure. So, one can study the humor of depressed people and get tons of money, but not the depression of clowns. So, one has to get as close as possible to one 's interests and hope one finishes the research with money to spare for other things.

Still, it is the war machine that accounts, in part, for the differences. The truth is that Scalia probably hasn't read much Jacob Bronowski, a true polymath in both the sciences and arts. He was a mathematician and a Blake scholar. He, certainly, had words to say about the role of the sciences and humanities in his, Ascent of Man, series. The last episode, The Long Childhood, should be essential viewing for anyone wishing to make a comparison between the importance of the sciences and humanities. Alas, no one listens to those who know, anymore.

The Chicken

I want to tell a little story here on my own degree field of English that tends to confirm what the Chicken says in perhaps a surprising way. My specialty in graduate school (for my dissertation) was Edmund Spenser. I chose it partly because of C.S. Lewis's interest in Spenser and partly because it was the specialty of the person whom I wanted to work with in the department. Spenser studies at that time was _relatively_ free of postmodern nonsense, which is to say that postmodern nonsense was there, but you could avoid it if you wanted to. One of the most conservative scholars at that time in Spenser studies actually advocated the incredibly unfashionable proposition that authorial intention determined literary meaning. In so doing he was harking back even _beyond_ the New Critics, who were already very outmoded, to the Old Historicists. So I thought Spenser studies was a good niche for me. However, a very hot topic just then in Spenser studies was, of all things, numerology. One critic several decades prior had written a plausible article arguing that Spenser's Amoretti (a sonnet sequence) was based upon the calendar in the year in which it was published. This was not far-fetched (though I think was partly wrong), but it had burgeoned just in the late 80's and early 90's into _far_ more far-fetched numerological conjectures about Spenser's works and their relationship to calendrical allusions. All this from the _conservative_ wing of literary scholarship. Every single one of the people publishing this stuff was an ardent anti-postmodern. I wrote an article questioning the very basis of all of this--the original article about the Amoretti. I was reviving a rather curmudgeonly article written by a woman who had already died by that time and whose objections had been largely ignored in her own time.

The editor of the journal to which I submitted--this extremely academically conservative scholar--accepted my article, but did so with a rather bad grace. His acceptance letter was particularly snarky about the fact that I had used the phrase "canons of evidence" in my article. What could _that_ be? What are these "canons of evidence"?

I looked at that acceptance letter and realized: This isn't really my field. Even the best of the scholars in this field, even the people fighting the tide, even my natural allies, were positively allergic to the notion of hard-headed argumentation and canons of evidence!

Who knows whether it has always been so. Perhaps a hundred years ago it wasn't. But it was a revelatory moment for me about the subjective nature of the field _as_ an academic field, as a place in which to "do work" and "make progress" and publish.

Thank you, Lydia. I had similar thoughts when I saw first saw Scalia's article, but you have responded much more cogently than I could.

I love language and literature, though have come to the latter later in life. I read about 100 or so books a year and look forward to retirement someday when all restraints on my reading habit can be cast aside. I love discussing and analyzing what I read, but you couldn't get me to take an English Lit class at a modern American university short of dragging me into the class and tying me into a seat. Better gag me while you're at it. And even that wouldn't be likely to be sufficient in a sociology class. :-)

Like Chicken, I have a foot in both worlds. I DID do liberal arts for an undergraduate degree. However, it was at the aforementioned Thomas Aquinas College, which is decidedly not modern or post-modern in its study of literature, psychology, ethics, philosophy, or history. Well over 90% of its curriculum is the study of authors who died before 1900 - the great works by the greatest writers of the west. This an education from which a man can say he is "an educated man" and have it mean _fundamentally_ the same thing it meant in Augustine's time, or Shakespeare's time, Tennyson's, Einstein's, Mortimer Adler's, etc.

On the other hand, I then got an MA in Math at a state university. (The undergrad course-work did include a fair amount of math.) I knew straight out from undergrad school that I needed to make of my general education something more definite, more concrete, and I wasn't going to be teaching literature or Latin. I know that many graduates with a 4-year bachelor's with mainly liberal arts do SOMETIMES land on their feet - I have seen it. But that "many" is in absolute terms, not as a percentage. Often enough they need additional specialization to make a go of anything, and if they don't get it they and their families suffer. Our society isn't going to provide a family living to everyone who has an emphasis in the humanities, just teaching more of the humanities. Can't work that way. Most need to go into something else. BUT THAT'S OK: if you undertook liberal education as the grounding for living as a fully free man, (in the classical sense), you are well prepared to go into something else, with some more study.

And then the total amount you pay, for an undergraduate degree in liberal arts plus a graduate degree, can be ridiculous. But not all schools are the same about that: Thomas Aquinas College limits total 4-year debt to $18,000 and comes up with other aid to make that happen. My colleague at work had his son attend one of the higher-cost private schools, and some of the students there racked up that much in debt in one year. Some of the college guides are picking up on this and noticing which colleges are a "better deal" in terms of delivering a quality product for a reasonable cost. My experience was what Chicken says, though, about a STEM degree - a graduate degree in Math was paid for, as long as you move through it at the quick pace.

If you aren't taking classes at the small handful of colleges that are consciously repudiating the modernist and post-modernist claptrap of the day, you are better off taking a STEM degree and ALSO tacking on a decent class or three in the humanities from the few, oh so VERY few professors with enough age (and tenure) to be curmudgeonly and just teach a class the truth and be damned to the politics. You won't get the all-around grounding that you need to be fully educated - that's what you have the rest of your life to accomplish, trying to educate yourself.

Scalia is right that conservatives shouldn't trash liberal education - the education of a free man - in theory. But there's plenty of room to criticize what passes for the humanities in much of academia, as Lydia says.

I consider myself extraordinarily lucky. I majored in the social sciences and minored in philosophy, later graduating without any debt. It helped that a good majority of my classes were relatively straightforward with its standards aka just kept to the (decent enough) material without much politics.

One of the most conservative scholars at that time in Spenser studies actually advocated the incredibly unfashionable proposition that authorial intention determined literary meaning.

You don't explicitly say if you believe authorial intention determines literary meaning. I'd be interested to know why or why not. (I put together a little bibliography on intentionalism for my own use once, but I've barely cracked it.)

His acceptance letter was particularly snarky about the fact that I had used the phrase "canons of evidence" in my article. What could _that_ be? What are these "canons of evidence"?

I admit, as a draughtsman with a chemistry degree, I would be hard-pressed to answer the question "What are these [literary] canons of evidence?" myself. What exactly did you mean?

I don't seem to have a copy of the paper handy. (It was word processed on a long-defunct computer.) So I don't have the exact quote of the context in which I used the phrase "canons of evidence." But in general I was arguing that conjectures of numerological authorial intent needed to be based on solid evidence and that the mere fact that one _could_ make up a numerological pattern did not mean much, as such patterns are all too easy to make up and are often illusory. I was also arguing that any such theory should be sensitive to counterevidence and that the advocates of the numerological theory of the Amoretti had not properly taken evidence against their theory into account. That was the broad context in which I referred to "following canons of evidence" or some locution of that kind. Obviously, the point wasn't that I had a list of "canons of evidence" in my back pocket! But if we're asking, "Did Spenser intend the poems in this sonnet sequence to correspond to specific dates in the year 1594?" there _are_ ways of arguing for or against this thesis (which I presented in the paper), and I was urging literary scholars to follow the available evidence with greater rigor.

You don't explicitly say if you believe authorial intention determines literary meaning. I'd be interested to know why or why not.

If I recall correctly, E.D. Hirsch distinguished "meaning" from "significance," where the latter is much broader and can include all kinds of things that the reader "finds" in the text that resonate with his personal situation, etc. I think this is a pretty useful distinction, and in the narrower sense, yes, I think authorial intention determines meaning.

However, I'm certainly willing to consider that there may be more than one author of a text, depending on the type of text. God being a second author in the case of Scripture, for example. In legal scenarios it becomes an even bigger mess, since most laws are multiply authored at many levels. When there is a translator of a work, that's another layer of human thought and possible meaning. I also think that an author sometimes forgets what he meant when he comments on a work some time after writing it, and there may be subconscious "intents" that come into play where an author is influenced by something he once read or heard without actually intending to allude to it, etc. In any event, the case of a set of sonnets written in English by an Elizabethan civil servant in the latter half of the 1500s is, by comparison with many other things, a fairly easy case for discussing whether authorial intention determines meaning! I suppose one could decide that the Muse is a real being who co-authored Spenser's works, but I would be reluctant to invoke that hypothesis.

Perhaps greater clarity could be achieved in discussions of this nature if we found another expression to differentiate between "the humanities", in the classical, pre-progressive meddling, sense of the term, and the postmodern sense that includes gender and queer studies and other such mind-destroying drivel. Since the classical meaning is the older it has the best claim to the title and it makes more sense to find another term for the newer version. "The inhumanities" suggests itself as the obvious choice.

Gerry, I like it. I shall adopt that usage hereforth.

I've publicized Mr. Neal's neologism (Neal-logism?) at the Orthosphere: http://orthosphere.org/2015/04/07/the-inhumanities/

The changes that the school systems in most Western countries have undergone over the last century have undermined what used to be a part of the preparation for serious and systematic literary studies. As a result, the already arduous and long formative path peculiar to the humanities - due to the tradition one must master and within which one must collocate one's particular interests - has been made LONGER. Nowadays it is virtually impossible to find below-PhD-level scholars who can discuss anything worthwhile in the humanities, and even many of those with PhDs have broad educations (beyond their specialty, but still necessary to be *good* specialists) comparable to those of people with lower degrees two or three generations ago.

Humanities will not - CAN NOT - be restored until lower levels of educational mess are addressed. They are needed, perhaps more than anything, in a world so deficient in aesthetics and in ways of appreciation of the world that cannot be reduced to mechanicistic-technological approaches. There is a need for people to cultivate that, to perserve and to build upon the tradition. But there is almost nobody ready to learn without serious elementary fixes first, and soon there will be nobody left to teach, because the few capable of it will have withdrawn to their little niches with the like-minded and the like-educated away from the barbarian masses.

Students need to know their Bible, how to tell a hexameter from an elegiac couplet, be grounded in their national tradition and have acquired a reading proficiency in another Western language (+ Latin) once again as ENTRY-level competences, not as EXIT-level competences (and in way too many institutions one would WISH these were exit-level competences!) and then there will be hope. When you get students not *receptive* of the education you are supposed to offer, because their gaps are so elementary as to be prohibitive of any serious learning, it is impossible to work.

I know just what you mean! I will be graduating with a degree in Anthropology this summer and I originally considered double majoring in Creative Writing (I love to write fiction) until I realized that I would be required to take more classes about 'multicultural literate' than classic English lit. I kid you not, there is a class for stuff written by each of these: blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, women, gays/transsexuals... and one class on Shakespeare. And there was no classes on the Iliad or any other classics which i am interested in. Needless to say, I decided to study literature on my own rather than suffer through any more English classes where they insisted that you determine what the text means... always thought it was funny how profs always consider their syllabus to mean what they say it means!

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