None dare call it extinction: On this morning’s front page, the New York Times reports a decline in college humanities majors.
At the end of Tamar Lewin’s report, Leon Botstein is quoted advancing a strange lament:
LEWIN (10/31/13): Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.Are you kidding? At this point, why would anyone believe that college instruction can impart “skills that will help [people] sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions?” By now, isn’t it fairly obvious that all such skills are dead? That skills which are vastly simpler have also become extinct?
“We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors,” he said.
Consider our posts in the past few days, some of which almost surely involved past humanities majors:
Yesterday, we found that an education reporter, an education editor and the author of an education study didn’t know that eligibility for free and reduced price lunch isn’t a measure of poverty.
Do baseball writers get confused about the number of outs each team gets in an inning? That’s roughly how clueless those three humanities majors seem to be.
After today’s post, it's no longer possible to imagine that Amanda Ripley knows squat or squadoosh about analyzing test scores. Yet she has written a major, ballyhooed book which is built around that practice.
Education writers who reviewed her book were either unable or unwilling to notice this obvious problem. In their reviews, they tended to further embellish the groaning embellishments found all through Ripley’s book.
Last week, Thomas L. Friedman described a recent experience. He visited a school in Shanghai as part of a major international delegation. When he watched a third-grade English class, he noted, with apparent surprise, that the lesson had been well-planned!
Has something been eating the brains of our past humanities majors? It’s hard to watch the way the press works without harboring some such concerns.
Earlier in today’s report, Louis Menand poses a second puzzling framework:
LEWIN: “In the scholarly world, cognitive sciences has everybody’s ear right now, and everybody is thinking about how to relate to it,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard history professor. “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year? But everybody’s reading science books.”One of our favorite people in life is an English professor. Having said that, which book by such a professor does Menand imagine that people should be reading?
Many distinguished humanities professors feel their status deflating. Anthony Grafton, a Princeton history professor who started that university’s humanities recruiting program, said he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”
Is the status of humanities professors deflating? If so, the professors have richly earned their diminution.
Over the past several decades, our public discourse has been a Babel. Our discourse has cried for clarifications of every conceivable kind. But alas:
The humanities professors have all gone away! If Andrew Hacker can be believed, they may all be in the south of France. But they plainly aren’t up to the task of addressing the fall of the culture.
Let’s return to Jim Sheridan’s 2002 film, In America. In the film, a young father whose son has died describes the way the loss has eaten away his being.
Johnny, an aspiring actor, is no longer fully alive. He’s no longer fully human. In effect, he describes himself as one of the walking dead:
JOHNNY: You know, I asked [God] a favor. I asked him to take me instead of him. And he took the both of us. And look what he put in my place!Our humanities professors are like that too. Could anything be more obvious? On every day, not just Halloween, they shamble away from the light.
I'm a fucking ghost. I don't exist.
I can't think. I can't laugh. I can't cry.
They can no longer think, or relate, or reason. Who would take classes from them?
Meet him far from St. Louis: Meet Me in St. Louis has a wonderful Halloween scene. For us, though, the ultimate Halloween scene is found in In America.
Mateo is from a less rationalistic culture. Invited to Halloween dinner with Johnny’s transplanted Irish family, he explains the nature of the day to a pair of transported girls:
MATEO: Halloween is called the Day of Ancestors, when the dead come back and we hear their voices.Mateo still perceives the world around him as alive. Our professors no longer perceive the world that way. So who would read their books?
CHRISTIE: How do you hear them?
MATEO: You hear their voices through the men dancing.
ARIEL: What do they say?
MATEO Uh...They complain. "You don't pay attention to me." "You don't feed me." "I'm hungry."
CHRISTIE: Are they ever happy?
MATEO: When they're happy, you never hear from them.
What a gorgeous Halloween scene! First, the trick-or-treat visit to Mateo's apartment. Then, the Irish Halloween dinner where these lost worlds get explained.