The Broccoli of Higher Ed
We hear these days of the "crisis of the humanities." The number of majors, jobs, and student interest in these subjects is dropping. The Boston Globe offered one report on the worries of the humanities in an article last year about the new Mandell Center at Brandeis University. The Globe asserted, "At college campuses around the world, the humanities are hurting. Students are flocking to majors more closely linked to their career ambitions. Grant money and philanthropy are flowing to the sciences. And university presidents are worried about the future of subjects once at the heart of a liberal arts education."
Such gloom must be placed in context. Doubts about the humanities have been around at least since Aristophanes wrote The Clouds. The playwright claimed that if a man engaged in the "new" Socratic form of teaching and questioning, he could wind up with big genitals (apparently seen as a negative side effect) due to a loss of self-control. But the Socratic humanities survived, in spite of the execution of their founder, through the schools of his intellectual son and grandson -- the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle.
I don't think that the humanities are really in a crisis, though perhaps they have a chronic illness. Bachelor's degrees in the humanities have held relatively steady since 1994 at roughly 12-13 percent of all majors. Such figures demonstrate that the health of the humanities is not robust, as measured in terms of student preferences. In contrast, the number of undergraduate business majors is steadily and constantly increasing.
So what has been the response of university and college leaders to the ill health of the humanities?
It has been to declare to applicants, students, faculty, and the public that these subjects are important. It has included more investments in humanities, from new buildings like the Mandel Center at Brandeis, to, in some cases, hiring more faculty and publicizing the humanities energetically. Dartmouth College's president, Jim Yong Kim, recently offered the hortatory remark that "Literature and the arts should not only be for kids who go to cotillion balls to make polite conversation at parties."
I couldn't agree more with the idea that the humanities are important. But this type of approach is what I call the "eat it, it's good for you" response to the curricular doldrums of humanities. That never worked with my children when it came to eating broccoli and it is even less likely to help increase humanities enrollments nationally today.
The dual-horned dilemma of higher education is the erosion of the number of majors in the humanities on the one hand and the long-feared "closing of the American mind" on the other, produced in part by the growing number of students taking what some regard as easy business majors. Yet these problems can only be solved by harnessing the power of culture, by understanding the ethno-axiological soup from which curriculums evolve and find their sustenance. Jerome Bruner has long urged educators to connect with culture, to recognize that the environment in which we operate is a value-laden behemoth whose course changes usually consume decades, a creature that won't be ignored.
It is also vital that we of the humanities not overplay our hands and claim for ourselves a uniqueness that we do not have. For example, it has become nearly a truism to say that the humanities teach "critical thinking skills." This is often correct of humanities instruction (though certainly not universally so). But critical thinking is unique neither to the humanities nor to the arts and sciences more generally. A good business education, for example, teaches critical thinking in management, marketing, accounting, finance, and other courses. More realistically and humbly, what we can say is that the humanities and sciences provide complementary contexts for reasoning and cultural knowledge that are crucial to functioning at a high level in the enveloping society.
Thus, admitting that critical thinking can also be developed in professional schools, we realize that it is enhanced and further developed when the thinker learns to develop analytical skills in history, different languages, philosophy, mathematics, and other contexts. The humanities offer a distinct set of problems that hone thinking skills, even if they are not the only critical thinking game in town. At my institution, Bentley University, and other institutions where most students major in professional fields, for example, English develops vocabulary and clarity of expression while, say, marketing builds on and contributes to these. Science requires empirical verification and consideration of alternatives. Accountancy builds on and contributes to these. Science and English make better business students as business courses improve thinking in the humanities and sciences.
If, like me, you believe that the humanities do have problems to solve, I hope you agree that they are not going to be solved by lamenting the change in culture and exhorting folks to get back on course. That's like holding your finger up to stop a tidal wave. Thinking like this could mean that new buildings dedicated to the humanities will wind up as mausoleums for the mighty dead rather than as centers of engagement with modern culture and the building of futures in contemporary society.
So what is there to do? How do we harness the power of culture to revive and heal the influence of the humanities on future generations? Remember, Popeye didn't eat his spinach only because it was good for him. He ate his spinach because he believed that it was a vital part of his ability to defend himself from the dangers and vicissitudes of life, personified in Bluto. And because he believed that it would give him a good life, represented by Olive Oyl.
Recently, an alumnus of Bentley told me over dinner, "You need business skills to get a job at our firm. But you need the arts and sciences to advance." Now, that is the kind of skyhook that the friends of the humanities need in order to strengthen their numbers, perception, and impact.
While I was considering the offer to come to Bentley as its next dean of arts and sciences, Brown University and another institution were considering me for professorial positions. Although I felt honored, I did not want to polish my own lamp when I felt that much in the humanities and elsewhere in higher education risk becoming a Ponzi scheme, which Wikipedia defines accurately as an "...operation that pays returns to separate investors, not from any actual profit earned by the organization, but from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors."
I wanted to make my small contribution to solving this problem, so I withdrew from consideration for these appointments to become an administrator and face the issue on the front line. And Bentley sounded like exactly the place to be, based on pioneering efforts to integrate the humanities and sciences into professional education -- such as our innovative liberal studies major, in which business majors complete a series of courses, reflections, and a capstone project emerging from their individual integration of humanities, sciences, and business.
Programs that take in students without proper concern for their future or provision for post-graduate opportunities -- how they can use what they have learned in meaningful work -- need to think about the ethics of their situation. Students no longer come mainly from the leisured classes that were prominent at the founding of higher education. Today they need to find gainful employment in which to apply all the substantive things they learn in college. Majors that give no thought to that small detail seem to assume that since the humanities are good for you, the financial commitment and apprenticeship between student and teacher is fully justified. But in these cases, the numbers of students benefit the faculty and particular programs arguably more than they benefit the students themselves. This is a Ponzi scheme. Q.E.D.
The cultural zeitgeist requires of education that it be intellectually well-balanced and focused but also useful. Providing all of these and more is not the commercialization of higher education. Rather, the combination of professional education and the humanities and sciences is an opportunity to at once (re-)engage students in the humanities and to realize Dewey's pragmatic goal of transforming education by coupling concrete objectives with abstract ideas, general knowledge, and theory.
I have labeled this call for a closer connection between the humanities and professional education the "Crucial Educational Fusion." Others have recognized this need, as examples in the new Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession illustrate. This crucial educational fusion is one solution to the lethargy of the humanities -- breaking down academic silos, building the humanities into professional curriculums, and creating a need for the humanities. Enhancing their flavor like cheese on broccoli.
Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University.
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