The Humanities Need Gen Ed

The curricular retreat away from canonical works and grand narratives has helped dampen student interest in the humanities, Mark Bauerlein writes.

March 21, 2022
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In 2019, the share of bachelor’s degrees that were earned in English dropped once again. In fact, for the first time the rate fell below 2 percent—fewer than one in 50 students are majoring in English—quite a comedown from the glory days in 1970, when English claimed nearly one in 13 four-year degrees. People my age look around and wonder what the hell happened.

I’ve been reading and writing about it for 20 years, and in the many discussions of this sorry fall, I would say, an important factor has been overlooked by me and others—one that is hard to prove and tough for academics to acknowledge, but nonetheless salient. It’s an ingredient I lay out in my new book, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults, and it starts with the minds of the kids.

If a high school senior in 1960 were just admitted to Stanford University and took an afternoon to check out freshman courses, here is what he would find under the general studies layout. Many of his options would already be set, not left to him. Everyone had to take a full year of English—three courses in canonical literature and composition (Stanford was on the quarter system). The sequence would teach him to write, yes, but also introduce students to the best writers of the language over the centuries—the exposure to a superior tradition of novels, verse and prose being a core goal of the requirement.

The student also had to take a full year of History of Western Civilization, handled by the history department, whose description of the sequence bore not a shred of ambiguity. Here is how the department framed it in the catalog that year:

The course in the History of Western Civilization, which surveys the development of the Western world from earliest times to the present, is required by the University of all students as a necessary part of a liberal education, and supplies a foundation for the other work in the Department.

The words “all … necessary … foundation” sent a message to our youth, telling him that a monumental background awaited him. Just as the year of English embodied a canon of verbal genius, so Western Civ presented a heritage of great ideas, events and individuals. Year one at Stanford would be an encounter with the ages, with the heroic and ingenious, tragic and triumphant, sublime and profound. Our high school senior was most likely daunted—and flattered.

And what does our senior in 2022 find when she opens the gen ed pages at Stanford? Certainly nothing like the old canon and core. Instead, we get abstract categories—Thinking Matters and Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing, along with a writing requirement (that doesn’t underscore classic literature) and a basic foreign language requirement. The current courses listed under Thinking Matters show how scattered the curriculum is. One covers the genome, another China in film, another “deliberative democracy,” rules of war, viruses … Each one may be interesting and challenging, but they don’t accumulate into a majestic formation. No august design, no historic sweep, just a pack of unrelated courses. Choose one and move on.

Stanford’s model isn’t unique, of course. The common system emphasizes such “thinking skills” or abstract issues (diversity and so on), then stacks a pile of heterogeneous courses under each one. Harvard University breaks general education up into the barely meaningful divisions Aesthetics & Culture, Ethics & Civics, Science & Technology in Society, and Histories, Societies, Individuals. Click on the links to this year’s courses and you’ll come across the same variety (the aesthetics list contains courses on satire, East Asian cinema, poetry and borders, LGBT literature and politics, philosophers and tyrants, Buddhist monuments, and more). They don’t add up. You’ll find some stimulating stories here and relevant topics there, but no big pictures or grand narratives. It’s a predictable setup; hundreds of campuses go this way.

Academic wisdom tells us to mistrust those totalizing conceptions and myths and lineages, of course. We learned early to be multicultural, not monocultural. As I passed through graduate school in the ’80s, canon became a bad word. Many of the hot ideas in the fields back then aimed straight at the old unities and universals and traditions, from Raymond Williams on fussy notions of “high culture” to Jean-François Lyotard’s rejection of “grand narratives.” Since then, as the grounds have shifted from Marxist and postmodern to identitarian, hostility has only increased. The fragmentation of the curriculum is greater now than ever before.

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Here’s the problem, though: the appeal of the humanities rests precisely on those overarching visions. The “metanarratives” that postmodernists mock and identitarians indict are what impress the wide-eyed sophomores. The humanities survive on undergraduate enrollments, and undergraduates want those big ideas and decisive events. However ironic and casual they seem on the surface, young Americans are thirsty for meaning and purpose and magnitude—at least, that’s the case for many students inclined to the humanities. They want the world to be a significant place. They like to believe that they stand in the wake of eminent things: Michelangelo and Beethoven, Waterloo and Selma.

A spicy selection of interesting courses on this and that relevant topic is no substitute for this acquisition of what is epic and towering. If the contents of the humanities don’t come together to form a structure that has fate and telos and distinction, if they don’t claim the heights of civilization, the allure dims. Moby-Dick, Huck Finn, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Invisible Man are all great, and they become greater if they are included in that commendable canon that went by the name the Great American Novel. An English teacher loses her luster if she can’t say, “In my class you will read the classics, and what you learn will join with things read in other classes and build a noble edifice of tradition in your mind and enhance you forever.”

In this specific sense, the new gen ed approach is antihumanistic. It inculcates skills, not knowledge, keeping the big pictures and timeless meanings away. And that’s a disappointment for the humanistic young. I know that sounds old-fashioned, but it’s the truth. The sophomores have voted with their feet and shrunk humanities enrollments. Yes, there are other factors—for instance, student loan payments that push them toward more career-oriented majors, politicians and tech leaders urging them toward STEM fields, and the ever-expanding undergrad business track—but we must add this one as well. If an institution doesn’t present general education as the purchase of a long train of civilization, the best that has been thought and said and done, students assume that the humanities departments don’t much matter. General education in freshman year doesn’t lead them to major in English in sophomore year. The pipeline is uninspiring.

The impact of a powerfully humanitas general education on the size of humanities programs was borne out at Stanford when the faculty scrapped its general studies program. It didn’t happen after the most famous episode of the canon wars took place, however, when Jesse Jackson spoke at Stanford in January 1987 and the 500-student crowd marched off chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s gotta go!” (Jackson was cranking up his Rainbow Coalition for another run at the presidency.)

No, general studies ended two decades before, in 1968, when a faculty committee issued a report recommending the system be dropped. The professors stated that it was “impossible” for the university to “choose what exactly it is that every student should know.” They rejected any program “founded on pretensions of eternal truth,” trusting instead that undergraduates have enough “independence of mind to suspect any ‘eternal’ truths, any ‘infallible’ methods, any ‘indispensable’ knowledge” (note the sneer quotes). Their conclusion: “This freedom to choose what knowledge and what disciplines to learn may be Stanford’s greatest gift to the student.” Two years later, general studies was out.

So what was the “Western Culture” the students in 1987 said had to go?

Well, by “Western Culture” they meant something specific to Stanford, a general education course that had been created but a few years before. The reason it happened—as outlined in a 1981 article by Stanford history professor Carolyn Lougee—was that in the 1970s, humanities enrollments at Stanford went into free fall once general studies ended. If the ’68 profs believed that a less prescriptive, no-knowledge-is-essential curriculum would draw more students to humanities fields, they were dead wrong. From 1969 to 1979, annual humanities majors fell from 1,062 to 624. Course enrollments plunged from 24,550 to 15,255.

Lougee, who had served as chair of Stanford’s Committee on Undergraduate Studies, called it a “precipitous decline,” and she tied it directly to the “dismantling” of the general studies curriculum. She was a feminist, not a conservative, but she led the effort to restore a Western Civilization–type course that would have “the same core list of Great Books stretching from Homer to Freud” and would be called Western Culture. The survival of humanities majors depended on it.

It didn’t last, of course. Stanford dropped Western Culture in 1988, following protests by students who sought a less Western-oriented curriculum, including groups with potent moral authority like the Black Students’ Union, MEChA (a Chicano student group), the Stanford American Indian Association and the Asian American Student Association. A new Cultures, Identities and Values (CIV) requirement that “included more inclusive works on race, class, and gender” replaced it.

The result wasn’t much better than before, though. A survey in 1994 found broad disappointment with the new multicultural classes, with students objecting to their randomness and superficiality. The curriculum had more representation of women and people of color, but enrollments in higher-level humanities courses did not go up. Diversifying the lower courses did not make the humanities majors any more appealing. Quite the contrary. A 2012 article in Stanford Magazine reported that humanities majors actually fell at least 25 percent in the previous two decades.

A year earlier, in 2011, Stanford’s president and provost registered their dismay and proposed five changes to enlarge the humanities pipeline. Unfortunately, they skipped the general education factor, the prep work of immersion in big pictures and canons. The professors who did speak about general education didn’t do any better, claiming that it was not important to read Homer et al. in the courses. Rather, “the core is whether you have the skills to read The Iliad and Dante.”

What a tepid and mechanical approach this must seem to our matriculating freshmen. It misconstrues the sensibilities of the kids in the seats, who don’t care a whit about skills needed to read of the death of Hector and the pathos of Paolo and Francesca. They want the stories and characters themselves, the dramatic climaxes and sweeping truths such as “Life’s but a walking shadow …” Perhaps that is true of only a minority of students, say, one-fourth, but if only half of that portion had gotten a “classic” core general education and were prompted to declare a humanities major, the fields would be thriving.

The unfortunate fact is that the humanities in the ’70s and ’80s theorized themselves away from the intentions of humanistic 19-year-olds. They judged youths who identify with Elizabeth Bennet and are absorbed by the Wallace Stevens lines “And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” as naïve, unaware, insufficiently critical. In the classroom, enjoyment gave way to debunking, reverence to demystification, the canon to the politics of the canon. Students who loved Hawthorne’s short stories and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because they had exhilarating teachers in high school found the critique of lower-division college classes a drag, a downer. They didn’t stick around.

To turn the enrollment trends around, humanities instructors need to make the humanities great again. We need our materials to come off as monumental and epochal, masterpieces and strokes of genius, a long march of civilization, the best, the very best. They need to stand up and declare, “If you don’t know the story of Dido and Aeneas, the last eight minutes of Götterdämmerung, what happened at Dunkirk, the First Amendment, how Malcolm Little changed in prison … you are a deprived individual.”

If they can’t say that, if the prescriptive posture still troubles them, if they’re still nervous about overfavoring one tradition, if they haven’t the confidence in themselves and the subjects to praise and profess the fields, then the humanities will remain what they are now: a minor part of the campus, a little humanitas window dressing to temper the empirical and instrumental thrust of business, STEM and the rest.

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Mark Bauerlein is emeritus professor of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things magazine.

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