An Ocean of Presumption

5 years ago

On May 29, 2012, published a piece by Peter Cohan called “To Boost Post-College Prospects, Cut Humanities Departments.” The title may seem to say it all, but there is, to cop a metaphor from Melville, a great depth of unknown ocean all around this Tahiti of clarity. What lurks in those depths?

Pretty much visible from the surface we can see the assumption that the reportedly weaker employment prospects of very recent college graduates are due to their lack of appropriate job-related credentials. Is that true? Or is this persistent economic slowdown simply providing fewer employment opportunities? Just how snug is the joinery supposed to be between what higher education produces and what employers want in a given hiring season? How snug can it be?

We can also make out the assumption that the humanities are useless. What sorts of positions are humanities majors fitted to take up? The jokes are legion, and some of them are pretty good. I recently saw a video on YouTube (Warning: some language issues!) featuring a graduate holding a hand-lettered sign: “Will elucidate Baudelaire sonnet 4 food.” Roll the laugh track. But really, now, what are people who have learned to think critically, to speak, listen, and write well, and to exercise creative imagination trained to do? Isn’t it an indictment of our society to suppose that the answer to that question is “nothing”?

But further in that ocean of presumption, is it the principal business of humanities departments to generate humanities majors? What would be the place of an English department or a philosophy department in a college or university even if they trained no majors at all? To give them no role in such a scenario is to confess a stunningly stunted view of higher education.

And that shows us what’s really paddling around down there deep in Cohan’s thinking. It’s a conception of higher education that regards it as nothing more than a pipeline of supplies ─ human resources in this case ─ to the nation’s economic engine. Key words: “nothing more than.” Of course, a big part of higher education is just that. But is it only that? America’s founders thought that a big role ─ maybe the biggest role ─ of higher education was to equip citizens for democracy and to raise the cultural level of the country. What is the role of the study of the humanities ─ not by humanities majors only but by everyone in the process ─ in accomplishing those aims?

The aspirations of millions of students and their families who aim to better themselves and their societies by pursuing higher education can’t be presumed to suffer confinement in narrow tracks defined exclusively by vocational preparation. Who goes to college hoping to be shaped into a widget in order to fit, immediately, mechanically, and forever, into a widget-shaped slot in some machine somewhere? Even if only implicitly ─ and often enough, quite explicitly ─ those aspirations are distinctively human, with all the breadth, richness, and ─ yes! ─ indeterminacy that the term implies. Even people who cast their aspirations primarily in technical or vocational terms, cannot be understood thereby to have forsaken the project of forming themselves as human beings. It’s in everyone’s interest ─ it’s even in everyone’s economic interest ─ for higher education to be shaped in ways that keep that project alive and carry it forward.

Then what is the role of the study of the humanities?

Photo at top: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

3 Responses to An Ocean of Presumption

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  1. Nathaniel Koven says:

    Peter Cohan is certainly right that colleges are not doing a good job of preparing students for the workforce. I haven’t seen statistics on this recently, but I imagine that the recent recession has triggered a fall-off among humanities majors all on its own. But cutting the humanities departments isn’t the answer, for many of the reasons John Churchill lists above. Employers also frequently complain that employees – especially those with science backgrounds – have weak writing and speaking skills, which are absolutely essential in the modern workplace. As business becomes more international, an understanding of our own and others’ cultural backgrounds and biases becomes more and more important.

    The disconnect, I think, is that the humanities’ relevance to the workplace isn’t taught in school. Perhaps it should be. My own humanities background (double-major in English and History) has served me very well, but at work I’m certainly not close-reading medieval documents or interpreting literature as I did in school. Students in the humanities are forced to make a much larger leap between what they learned and how to apply it than students in other areas, and that’s the gap that needs bridging.

    I do think it would be interesting to apply the every-tub-on-its-own-bottom logic to individual departments (Harvard, which coincidentally is where I work, applies it on the level of the different schools that make up the University), but I rather doubt the experiment would go as Mr. Cohan imagines it would. Instruction in the humanities is very inexpensive to provide: there’s the cost of the faculty, yes, but then what? You don’t need specialized classrooms, you don’t need expensive equipment that becomes outdated in less than five years, and much of the required reading materials are in the public domain. The overhead is quite small, especially compared to the sciences. I don’t think humanities departments would have much trouble sustaining themselves.

  2. […] I recently read an article from John Churchill, the secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, writing in response to an article published on that universities should cut their Humanities Departments. […]

  3. […] An Ocean of Presumption, Phi Beta Kappa Society, John Churchill. This entry was posted in Advocacy, History in the News, News and tagged humanities on February 26, 2013 by Vanessa Varin. […]

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