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English Majors Evaporating

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Simon During: Stop Defending the Humanities

 

We know [...] that the humanities in their modern Western form were established quite recently—around the end of the 19th century. They are only very loosely connected to those older humanisms that appeared in the ancient, early modern, and Enlightenment eras. And we know that the modern humanities have taken different forms in different nations: it is a matter of some argument whether the academic humanities as they have developed in Anglophone nations have strict equivalents even in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, let alone in China or Japan.
We also know that the Western humanities expanded at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century under a regime we can call social capitalism [...]
 
[A]t least in the US, the humanities’ share of the total undergraduate population has not significantly declined since the 1980s, it is likely that fewer students proportionally study the core humanities in their traditional modes than in social capitalism’s heyday. It would appear that it is this (overdetermined) shrinkage of certain core humanities disciplines that has sparked the outbreak of sermonizing in defense of the humanities as a whole. [...]
 
The key consequence of seeing the humanities as a world alongside other broadly similar worlds is that the limits of their defensibility becomes apparent, and sermonizing over them becomes harder. If people stopped watching and playing sports, how much would it matter? The question is unanswerable since we can’t imagine a society continuous with ours but lacking sports, even though one such is, I suppose, possible. We do not have the means to adjudicate between that imaginary sportless society and our own actual sports-obsessed society. The same is true for the humanities. If the humanities were to disappear, new social and cultural configurations would then exist. Would this be a loss or gain? There is no way of telling, partly because we can’t picture what a society and culture that follow from ours but lack the humanities would be like at the requisite level of detail, and partly because, even if we could imagine such a society, our judgment between a society with the humanities and one without them couldn’t appeal to the standards like ours that are embedded in the humanities themselves. The humanities would be gone: that’s it.

 

 

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This seems to be as good a place as any for me to report that the new Pamela Smart documentary states that Smart has earned two (I think postgraduate) degrees while in prison, one of them in English.

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Over the Past 40 Years, Fewer English Majors but More Journalism Majors

 

Among the disciplines that have lost share in total degrees awarded: education (21% of degrees awarded in 1970-71, 5.9% in 2011-12); English (7.6% vs. 3%); social studies and history (18.5% vs. 10%); math and statistics (3% vs. 1%); physical sciences and science technologies (2.5% to 1.5%); and foreign languages, literatures and linguistics (2.5% to 1.2%).

 

My major, Communications, has seen a big upswing.

 

The majors that have gained the most share: business (13.7% in 1970-71 vs. 20% in 2011-12); health professions and related programs (3% vs. 9.1%); and communication, journalism, and related programs (1.2% vs. 4.7%).

Isn’t that kind of crazy? That means almost one in 20 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2011-12 was in communications/journalism. Why, I have no idea. Probably not because of the hot job prospects.

 

Well, 40 years is a long time. I wonder if the past 10 years has been measured, would we see a dropoff in Communications majors from the previous 10 years? I would guess so, but I'm not sure.

Edited by Christian

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Over the Past 40 Years, Fewer English Majors but More Journalism Majors

 

Among the disciplines that have lost share in total degrees awarded: education (21% of degrees awarded in 1970-71, 5.9% in 2011-12); English (7.6% vs. 3%); social studies and history (18.5% vs. 10%); math and statistics (3% vs. 1%); physical sciences and science technologies (2.5% to 1.5%); and foreign languages, literatures and linguistics (2.5% to 1.2%).

 

My major, Communications, has seen a big upswing.

 

The majors that have gained the most share: business (13.7% in 1970-71 vs. 20% in 2011-12); health professions and related programs (3% vs. 9.1%); and communication, journalism, and related programs (1.2% vs. 4.7%).

Isn’t that kind of crazy? That means almost one in 20 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2011-12 was in communications/journalism. Why, I have no idea. Probably not because of the hot job prospects.

 

Well, 40 years is a long time. I wonder if the past 10 years has been measured, would we see a dropoff in Communications majors from the previous 10 years? I would guess so, but I'm not sure.

 

I'd be curious to see the actually numbers behind this. (I guess I could wade through my Higher Education textbooks at home later.) Giving percentages is good, but actually have the total numbers of degrees in each field would be helpful.

 

From a ground-level perspective, communications as a discipline (at least at my institution) is hurting. 

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Eric Liu: Study Liberal Arts--and Gain Power

 

A liberal arts education has its roots, etymologically and otherwise, in the requirements of liberty: what it takes to be a self-governing citizen rather than a slave. To be a citizen of a country like the United States you should be literate in the humanities as well as the sciences, in the arts as well as accounting. Illiteracy is risky. Willful illiteracy is civic malpractice.
 
To disparage liberal arts, as politicians often do, is to disparage citizenship itself. And though it may seem populist to champion so-called practical fields, there's nothing more elitist than saying that most people can't benefit from a liberal arts education.

 

 

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Ed Simon:Daddy, What Did You Do in the Culture Wars?

 

Quote

Bemoaning the current state of academic literary study, and blaming it for the supposed collapse of the humanities has been a cottage industry since the so-called “Culture Wars” of the 1980s when fashionable French Theory was supposedly responsible for the degeneration of everything holy. The contours of this genre are fairly standardized. The writer is either a conservative academic comfortably imprisoned within the belly of the beast, wailing about the machinations of pernicious radicalism permeating higher education; or they are a traditionalist minded journalist working at the right-wing press (

The Week, The National Review and First Things are prime databases for this kind of rhetoric) sharing with their audience the horrors of tenured radicals who have  discarded Shakespeare in favor of Inuit lesbian slam-poetry, or whatever imaginary subject du jour is enraging the author.

[snip]

The “school of agrievement” that is composed of critics like the Blooms, Hirsh, Cheney and so on are in a way not wrong that Theory did in part iron out some of what makes literature so profound, and different from other linguistic forms. Cultural materialism, New Historicism, cultural studies and so on provided us with a partial critical service in removing the special status of literary text. In opening up all of written language to the hermeneutics of interpretation they helped us to understand how literature is formulated within given cultural and material contexts. But as an exorcist castes out demons, she must also be careful not to caste out angels. In expanding the canon there has been a necessary democratization of texts, voices once mute now sing with the inclusion of those who were too often ignored. That is not a cause to abandon the special power and significance of literature however, far from it; it is a call to do the exact opposite, to reaffirm the written word’s immense and almost supernatural significance, and to reclaim the concept of literature back from the traditionalists.

The whole piece is quite good. I've suggested elsewhere that, in a very real sense, the most radical, revisionist academic leftist is properly a conservative because they honor the past by scrutinizing it. This article fits alongside that suggestion quite snugly; as Simon points out, the temptation is to allow Bloom, Hirsh, and Epstein (who doesn't seem to have trotted out his favorite party-trick this year) to claim the mantle of really caring about Literature--but all this obsession with ranking Great Books is just so much fanboyism. The truth is, we all care about literature, and the fact that some of us care about Shakespeare and some of us care about Toni Morrison isn't really material. It's the work that matters, the business of analysis and interpretation, a business that has many windings and comes up against many (oh, so many!) dead-ends. But there's always those rare places where the end isn't dead, where we suddenly find an outlet onto new vistas--and that is what makes the work worth it. 

Being open to those moments, those outlets, is the business of literary studies, not hunkering down in a fort with a tattered copy of the Great Books. To quote from Simon again:

Quote

Yet this proud touting of the values of the “Dead White Men” is not just profoundly illiberal (in both the classical and current sense of that word), but also completely antithetical to the spirit of humanism. Since the Renaissance (the period which I study) it has been a creedal belief of the humanist to find wisdom where one does. In their snarky and fussy condemnations of my previously mentioned hypothetical (and honestly sort of awesome sounding) lesbian Inuit slam-poetry, the conservative critic has barred himself from finding the wisdom which may well lay within literature which they refuse to read for not being adequately dead, white, and male.

Forget the use of "conservative," which muddies the waters. Replace it with "Bloomian" or "Epsteinian" or whatever. This idea of "the wisdom which may well lay within literature" is what's important. It's what I try to convey to my students: that at any moment, from any direction, some sort of shattering voice might speak out and shake their dull routines and their routine dullness--Dark calls this "Apocalypse"; Tillich apparently called it kairos. In any event, it's an in-breaking, a shattering of epistemic molds, a profound "no" to whatever "yes" we hold sacred. It can be found in the Great Books of the Western Canon, yes--but not always there and not exclusively there. I've found it myself in the final pages of The Crying of Lot 49, in P.D. James' Death in Holy Orders, in Henry Bellamann's Kings Row and Lillian Smith's Strange Fruit. And in Li Bai and the first chapter (the only one I read, to my shame!) of Cry, the Beloved Country

I do think Simon is right that non-Canon-floggers have not always adequately articulated the value of literary study once we throw everything open to examination; that's part of what Eagleton's concerned with in After Theory. But that doesn't mean they don't prize literature or value its influence. Once again, I'm pushed toward the conclusion that the most properly conservative stance--if by "conservative" we mean "attempting to conserve and value the past"--is, in fact, the approach that's often called "liberal"--revisionism, reclamation. Redemption.

Edited by NBooth

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Related because of all the canon-stuff in this thread:

L.D. Burnett, "On Lamentations for a Lost Canon"

Quote

The myth of the canon as some set of texts that was once widely taught on American university campuses until it was finally abandoned in the 1980s is, in fact, a product of 1980s’ and 1990s’ debates about higher education. Academics, polemicists, and public intellectuals who resisted the multicultural turn in the humanistic disciplines framed these curricular changes as signs of decline, but the narrative of a purported fall from a golden age, when "the canon" formed the core of the American university curriculum and all students could be expected to read the same texts, bears little relation to the actual history of American higher education since at least the late 19th century.

 

Edited by NBooth

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