Humanities Classes Falling Out of Favor is Higher Education’s Own Fault

In The New York Times Tamar Lewin laments the slow death of the humanities in our system of higher learning. She notes that the humanities are going by the wayside with fewer students signing up for such courses every year. But Lewin gets the reason completely wrong. She blames the recession but in fact it is the fault of our system of higher learning, not economics.

In her third paragraph, Lewin puts the locus of the blame for the slow death of the field of humanities on the economy. She claims that “the recession” has “helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation.” Administrators from coast to coast, Lewin says, are concerned about this falling interest among students.

“The future of the humanities has been a hot topic this year, both in academia and the high-culture media,” Lewin writes. “Some commentators sounded the alarm based on federal data showing that nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970.”

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences also issued a report warning that as the emphasis on science and technology grows in our universities, funding for the humanities could suffer.

After relaying some more quotes from alarmed and aggrieved humanities professors, Lewin reiterates her blame for all this.

“Meanwhile, since the recession–probably because of the recession–there has been a profound shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground,” she says.

Lewin then gives us another “expert’s” quote.

“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” Lewin says that Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, said.

This is all wrong headed.

The fall of humanities is neither sudden nor a result of the current economic crunch. It has been a long time coming, certainly, but Lewin is sort of right about it being because of employment.

To see where this happened we have to go back to post WWII America. The GI Bill was all the rage and people who would never have attended college in the past were flooding to our institutes of higher learning.

This was a catalyst of sorts for what came next for as the decades progressed businesses began to require college degrees for more and more jobs–even at entry level. And as more and more businesses added these requirements to the criteria for new hires, the importance of college grew in a sort of dog-chasing-its-tail way.

This pushed students into business mode, it caused them to weigh what classes would get them a job at the businesses that are now demanding college degrees when in decades past they never did.

The result is that the humanities have suffered.

After all, who needs some aging hippie telling him that the USA is evil, that socialism is good and right and how to write and/or read the great American novel when none of that is going to help a student get a job at Apple Computer, or General Electric?

In essence, as our institutes of higher learning convinced more and more Americans that college was a must and as businesses began to drink that kool aide, the humanities became a victim to the very success of the growth of college as an important tool for employment-minded youth (and everyone else, for that matter).

One final point. College used to be a polishing stone for fine young people used to help hone them to become future leaders of the nation. Young people went to college to learn the great books, to imbibe the heady froth of philosophy, to inculcate western civilization, to learn to write well and appreciate what was written.

College used to be something that only the upper crust indulged as everyone else was far too busy trying to make ends meet.

In an atmosphere like that, no wonder that the humanities were highly prized and eagerly sought after.

But now that just everybody goes to college and it is used as a sign that applicants for even the lowest entry level job is worthy of consideration, it is totally logical that “unnecessary” things like the humanities is finding itself on the outs.

So, Lewin is wrong. It has nothing to do with today’s failing Obama economy. The fall of the humanities have been a long time coming and it really is the fault of their own institutions.

The old hippies that run these departments should retire to their generous pensions while they are still there to be gotten and before the higher education bubble breaks and deflates every college and university in the country.

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