Timestalk: Humanities majors on the decline!


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.

“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.
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?

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.”

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.”
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?

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!

I'm a fucking ghost. I don't exist.

I can't think. I can't laugh. I can't cry.

I can't...feel!
Our humanities professors are like that too. Could anything be more obvious? On every day, not just Halloween, they shamble away from the light.

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.

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.
Mateo still perceives the world around him as alive. Our professors no longer perceive the world that way. So who would read their books?

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.


  1. Professor George Lyman Kittridge was the last English professor anyone every respected, apparently -- except for other English professors who found him excessively erudite and worked hard to remove Chaucer and Shakespeare from the curriculum in favor of "close reading."

  2. At many colleges, four years of tuition, room, board and expenses costs a quarter of a million dollars. So, many graduates must quickly get a well-paying job simply to make the payments on their college loans. That huge debt pushes students away from majoring in the humanities. (I don't even want to go into how screwed are those students who don't even graduate, but are still stuck with humongous debts.)

    Furthermore, IMHO many humanities courses have deteriorated due to post-modernism or political correctness or whatever you want to call it. Many of them just have little value. (However, I exclude Leon Botstein from this complaint. I think a course from him would be wonderful!)

  3. "Everybody's reading science books...." Of course, this is overstating it too. A lot of people are reading nothing.

    And if you're reading Malcolm Gladwell's books, you're doing more damage than if you read nothing at all.

  4. OMB (The Disaggregation Head Cheerleader Turns on the Team)

    BOB types: "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.

    BOB proves two things here:

    The champion of disaggregating school statistics doesn't know that eligibility for free and reduced lunch at schools is in fact a major definition of "poverty" used by the US Department of Education in both categorizing schools and in disagregating data on tests like the GOLD Standard he keeps using to flail his nemesis, the commercially successful writer, Ms. Ripley.


    He also proves he has not read the study he criticizes, for it does not make the mistake of defining people as being in poverty as does the reporter and editor he flambes. Either he a) does not read comments on his on blog like he does on those he himself comments or reproduces here for his readers or b) he cannot bring himself to admit an error.

    Give your degree back to Harvard, BOB. You are a disgrace to the humanities. (We kid, of course. It's a stale joke. No racial implications intended, even though we expect better from our white brothers).

    KZ (Trix or Tweets)

    1. From your own source:

      <quote emphasis="mine">
      The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program provides a proxy measure for the concentration of low-income students within a school.

      In other words, because the data on the incomes of students' parents isn't readily available, the study uses the percentage of children on the lunch program, which data is available.

      This will include many children not officially living in poverty, since a kid can be in the lunch program and still have his family's income at 185% of the poverty level.

      The study doesn't make the mistake that you just classified as not an error? Then I guess it's a good thing that TDH doesn't criticize the study, just the reporters who mischaracterized it.

      a) Why would THD read the commentary on his blog? Most of it is as pig-ignorant as yours. Though not as smug. b) TDH just admitted he heard "agenda" when the word was "gender."

    2. Excuse me, but the incomes of families of children IS readily available -- through the free and reduced lunch program.

      When my children were attending an inner-city Catholic school, I volunteered just before each school year helping families apply annually for free and reduced priced lunches. Proof of income, based on the previous year's income tax return, was required, and it was all kept on file for audit.

      Karzon is exactly right. The free and reduced price lunch program is not only a good measure of the relative income of families whose children are enrolled in each school, it is the ONLY such measure available, readily or otherwise, particularly in public schools which don't means-test children before enrolling all for free.

      So before you throw around such epithets as "pig-ignorant," you should perhaps make sure you know what you are talking about before you put your own ignorance on public display.

      What's got the panties of Bob and his minions such as you is splitting the hairs between "poverty" and "low income."

      Let me assure you of two things. Families living at 185 percent of poverty are definitely "low income." And the vast, vast majority of families -- at least in my experience -- who qualify for reduced price lunches are well below 185 percent, and every single family qualifying for free lunches is far, far, far below that standard, and many even well below 100 percent poverty.

    3. Excuse me, but before I heap a well-deserved portion of snark on your head, let me own up to the limits of my own knowledge. I should have said, "I'd guess that the breakdown of incomes of the families of schoolchildren isn't available to the NCES." No doubt it is, in aggregate and by name, to the auditors of the FRPL program. The NCES, probably not so much, which is why they use a proxy indicator.

      But what a famous rhetorical victory you had in vanquishing your straw man argument that families living at 185% of the the poverty level aren't "low income." If only anyone had argued such a point. Oh, well.

      Karzon isn't exactly right. Most of the time he isn't even wrong. The only thing he's exactly is smug. FRPL is likely not the only (or even the ONLY) good measure of relative income. Given zip code, age, and marital status, data aggregation programs can make a frighteningly good estimate of family income.

      But to TDH's point. We have a definition of poverty-level income, and to ignore that by blurring the distinction between poverty and low income is journalistic malfeasance. (Ignoring this factual matter is what you call "splitting the hairs.") Whether it's done out of ignorance (porcine or otherwise) or deliberately, it permits sensationalism in the furtherance of narrative. As TDH repeats endlessly, it's possible to investigate how public schools work or fail in serving children of low-income families. Or you can just write scare headlines.

      As to your "experience." In the best TDH tradition, that's worth either squat or squadoosh. I can't really say which it is.

    4. Better smug than stupid deaderat.

      1)"it's a good thing that TDH doesn't criticize the study, just the reporters who mischaracterized it." deadrat

      "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." BOB above.

      " We were shocked by the author of the new study:
      Suitts is stunned, and we are too. Within our broken culture, it isn’t just the journalists who cluelessly wander the land. It’s also the people at our foundations, the ones who conduct our research!" BOB two days ago

      As to your "reading ability", in the smuggest TDH tradition, that's worth either squat or squadoosh."

      2) "a) Why would THD read the commentary on his blog? Most of it is as pig-ignorant as yours." deadrat

      BOB reads comments, reprints comments, makes comments and responds to them. Just not on or from his blog? Does he shares your opinion that most people who comment here are ignorant? That makes someone other than me smug. It also reinforces a comment I made before that the reason BOB may be comfortable changing, inventing and fudging his own statistics because he holds the intellect of his readers in contempt. Is this the case? We just don't know.

      "TDH just admitted he heard "agenda" when the word was "gender."" deadrat

      This responds to my comment that BOB had not read the study because he doesn't read comments here at TDH or he does not like to admit or correct errors. You already foolishly agree to the first part of my either-or proposition for BOB's false attack on the study author, which you foolishly denied he made. Now you foolishly offer proof that BOB corrects errors by pointing to a post in which BOB claims to have misheard something Masala said in order to focus on the beautiful thought he claims he misheard but wished she had said. That is not an error or correction. It's misdirection. It's akin to Lawrence O'Donnell claiming to misplace a statement by Ted Cruz in order to focus his audience on what he wished Cruz had said. In both BOB's post and O'Donnell's broadcast, readers and viewers were given the exact quote. And in both cases the one mishearing was BOB. In his own post he did it intentionally. In the O'Donnell broadcast BOB invented O'Donnell's actions (he pretended to misplace the statement) in order to obscure what Cruz really said, In fact viewers saw what Cruz said on their screen. Bob lied. His error was pointed on in comments he doesn't read. He never corrected himself.

      3) "As TDH repeats endlessly, it's possible to investigate how public schools work or fail in serving children of low-income families." deadrat

      BOB got his kinckers in a twist because he caught a reporter making the common mistake of using the accepted federal and research method of defining poverty in schools to define the individual students and their families. But the thrust of her article and the study it was based on was exactly what you say BOB does endlessly: investigate how schools perform on behalf of low income kids. BOB chose to rail about the ignorance of the author and her editor and ignore the message of the article.

      BOB has endlessly criticized Ms. Ripley and her book. He rarely refers to or shows data, which is available, on low income testing compared to race and ethnicity. If he ever gets around to it you will find low income defined be eligibility for free and reduced lunch. And you will find that criteria used to define which schools have low, medium and high poverty levels. The point of the article and the study he has so savagely criticized for misuse of the word "poverty" is focused on how fast the latter has grown.


    5. Better smug than stupid? I'll take your word for it since you've raised both to an art form.

      My reading comprehension is pretty good. The study from the Southern Education Foundation got it right; Sparks got it wrong. The study says "low income"; Sparks says "in poverty." TDH went after Sparks. Who's the fool?

      Does TDH read, reprint, make, and respond to comments on his blog? Not under his own name. Perhaps he's anonymous and Anonymous. Does he share my opinion about the level of ignorance in the commentary? I have no idea. Apparently neither do you, but you brought it up anyway. I'd say your art form was performance art. The analysts here all agree with me. And they're pretty smug about it. And you know what you say: better smug than stupid.

      As usual with you, I can't really tell what point you're trying to make with TDH's commentary on the O'Donnell/Cruz piece. Yeah, TDH got some of this wrong. If TDH is down on mind reading, then he shouldn't pretend to know that O'Donnell only pretended to misplace Cruz' statement. Presumably, O'Donnell knew that Cruz had "mildly rebuked" Klayman, but he also knew that Cruz didn't denounce the statement. Which is the actual claim O'Donnell made. And if TDH is down on hating, then he shouldn't be calling O'Donnell a "very bad person." But he wouldn't be wrong about O'Donnell do very bad things, including some in the segment quoted. The misplaced statement just wasn't one of them.

      So TDH "caught a reporter making the common mistake." What's your point? That the mistake is forgivable because lots of people do it? Yeah, TDH didn't write about the results of the underlying study, but then his blog is about the reporting on such studies. How about we all note once again that the blogger doesn't blog on the topic you think he should. Then we can all roll our eyes and move on.

      Most people don't read reports on education. Most people don't understand enough statistics to wade through the technical aspects of reports on education. Most people get their information, if they get any, second hand, from people like Sparks and Ripley. And when these folks get it wrong, so will their audience.

      Yeah, I know. The blogger doesn't blog enough about the studies themselves as you would have him do. Can we just roll our eyes and move on now?

  5. Kittridge's Shakespeare course, a requirement for sophomores, required that students to virtually memorize 6 plays.

    According to wikipedia:
    English 2, the Shakespeare class for which Kittredge became so famous, was a lecture courses of about 275 Harvard students. He also gave the course to the women students at Radcliffe, as well as lecturing on Shakespeare at the Lowell Institute and on tours. Other courses and subjects which Kittredge taught or co-taught were English 28, a survey course covering Chaucer, the epic, and the ballad; Historical English Grammar, and Anglo-Saxon, a prerequisite for his course in Beowulf. In the German Department, Kittredge taught Icelandic, Old Norse, and, for many years, a course in German Mythology. His graduate courses included Germanic and Celtic Religions (which he co-taught with F. N. Robinson, a Celticist); English Metrical Romances (including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo); as well as Child's ballad course.[10]
    Kittredge's students included Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John A. Lomax, whose lectures and collection of cowboy ballads Kittredge supported, and the folklorists Robert Winslow Gordon, James Madison Carpenter, William S. Burroughs[11] and Stith Thompson.[12] Kittredge was named Gurney Professor of English at Harvard in 1917. He retired from teaching in 1936 and continued to work on his edition of Shakespeare until his death in 1941. - E

    1. If what you say is indeed true, I cannot imagine a bigger waste of a university student's precious time and money today that a class requiring that student to memorize six Shakespeare plays.

      Thankfully, the world has changed since 1917-36.

      Now before you jump on your high horse again, I am NOT saying there is no value at all in studying Shakespeare, either in high school or college. There is tremendous value in it.

  6. Hunh?

    And Roger Williams was a dead end because Rhode Island is so little and struggling today.

    Humanities professors toil in the vineyards like anyone else. More than anyone else, these days. Does Bob have the slightest idea?

    If he hasn't yet, he should read Craig Wilder's Ebony and Ivy. (Hey, Wilder a historian, a humanities professor!)

    Complicit and subversive, all at the same time, since forever, professors are -- like everybody else. (Though note also the role of "medicine"/science in the game.)

  7. When the humanities were the humanities
    @7:26 Oh, it was true all right. And not a waste, according to those who took the course.
    According to Kittredge's biographer:
    "English 2, which required reading six plays intensively, was a way of learning how to read Shakespeare--only one of several ways to study Shakespeare, as Kittredge emphasized. It was no more "Germanic" than the method of explication de textes method, some think, in which Kittredge had no superior in Germanic. The final examination included fifty or more quotations from Shakespeare which the student was to interpret and discuss, identifying the context and supplying pertinent information. He would be asked to quote a few lines from the several passages, usually five or six hundred lines in all, which he had memorized passages worth knowing. Kittredge once stated that a former student had obtained a position by quoting some lines he had memorized in English 2 to a prospective employer who believed students did not know any Shakespeare;* and that another had used memorized passages to soften moments of loneliness in his cabin in the West.
    There was usually a question on more general topics, and one in which the student was to draw on knowledge derived from supplementary reading. ...
    Some students prepared for the English 2 examination by writing out on slips of paper all the passages discussed; by going over the slips, usually with fellow students, they discovered those they could not explain and eventually learned to explain them, too. Regardless of preparation, to finish the examination in three hours required writing at top speed and filling more than one or two examination books a feat achieved by a relatively small minority. But most of even the C students felt that the course was distinctly worth while ...
    -- Clyde Kenneth Hyder, "George Lyman Kittredge, Teacher and Scholar" (University of Kansas Press, 1962) -E

  8. "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. "

    But did anyone doubt she was pushing a book?

    Edu-opinion is fashionable right now, and also lucrative. I myself am not an educator but I do have a child in a public school so I am waiting for the media-celebrity herd to move onto something else, before they destroy his school.

    Also, this post is leaning towards "at one point in the much-better past we had better discourse".

    I don't agree with that. There were always shills selling books and our discourse was always dumb. It's great to point it out, but it's not NEW.

  9. Cont: "But most of even the C students felt that the course was distinctly worth while; here is the comment made by one of them soon after finishing it in 1911-12: 'Although there are few notes here, this represents one of the best and hardest courses I ever took. We read only 5 plays [usually six were read; in some years one might be assigned but not discussed in class] during the whole year. One would think such a long time spent and only 5 plays read would be wasted, but far from it. The Prof is the most wonderful man I ever knew. He is a scholar and he knows life. He takes up these plays about 5 pages a day & extracts the human nature from them. It is as good as a course in psychology and you certainly learn more about actual life. I feel now that I can really read and enjoy Shakespeare. We had to commit about 600 lines, which I didn't do. I got about 3OO or 400. The exam held us responsible for every word in those 5 plays. Old Kitty has a large bushy white beard that is just a trifle stained where his cigar touches it. He is very dignified and has an awful temper.'
    'It is quite untrue to say' wrote another former student, '. . . that the course was largely philological. Now and then Professor Kittredge paused to give an interesting glimpse of an episode in the biography of a word; but all these bits of word history bore directly on his main purpose. He gave much time to the discussion and interpretation of the characters, with occasional praise or pungent criticism of famous performers. The course left with the student a sense of intimate acquaintance with the characters and the plays, and an understanding of Elizabethan English which enabled him to go on reading Shakespeare and his contemporaries intelligently.'

    * note: This [Kittredge's anecdote about the student who got a job on the strength of his Shakespeare] was not intended as a serious illustration of the economic value of English 2. It may be pertinent to note, however, that the president of Neiman-Marcus in Dallas once listed English 2 first among the courses which supplied 'many of the ideas, facts and theories' that 'I have been able to put to work in my business life' (Stanley Marcus, "Best of Two Worlds," College in a Yard, ed. Brooks Atkinson [Cambridge, 1957], p. 171)."
    -- Clyde Kenneth Hyder, "George Lyman Kittredge, Teacher and Scholar" (University of Kansas Press, 1962)

    I know one young person who got a job recently on the basis of having read P.G. Wodehouse, however. And another young person of my acquaintance was hired for a job in real estate this summer after being able to answer the her boss's question, "What year did the Ottoman Empire end?" So general knowledge is still of some importance in business employment. -E

    1. Yes. There is nothing more important in the sales of real estate than knowing precisely the year that the Ottoman Empire ended.

  10. I have no idea why her interviewer (the owner of the company) asked that question. Except perhaps that she had majored in Near Eastern studies (a liberal art).


  11. Tons of right wing book published by Hannity, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, or published by Regnery are being lapped up by conservatives around the country.

    These humanities books are near the top of NT Times Bestseller list on a regular basis.

    Zinn's book got some popularity, and so do the odd left wing authors, formerly Molly Ivins, and that Texan, former Railroad commissioner.

  12. I didn't go to Bard College, but Leon Bostein was the President of my college.

    I think my school did teach critical thinking skills, and I have a particularly non-practical social sciences degree in "History of Ideas."