Two recent reports on the status of higher education — one by Harvard University and the other from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — have sparked discussion across the nation on the decline of the humanities in U.S. universities.
The Harvard report documents the falling percentage of humanities majors at Harvard in the past 30 years, but those statistics don’t tell much of a story. As Anthony Grafton and James Grossman point out in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, the proportion of the American population earning degrees in the humanities has remained about the same since the 1940s.
The American Academy report issues a series of bromides about why the humanities are important. It is chock-full of catch phrases such as “provide an intellectual framework” and “understanding of diverse cultures” which, as Stanley Fish pointed out in a recent New York Times column, sound meaningful but don’t actually mean anything.
If the reports lack substance, why are they generating so much discussion?
Perhaps it’s because they tap into a popular theme of falling standards in American education. They continue a refrain introduced in 1987 with the publication of “The Closing of the American Mind.” The author, Allan Bloom, lamented the fact that universities were no longer teaching a “great books” curriculum, charging that “higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.”
Another reason may be concerns over the cost of higher education and the increasing levels of student debt. Those are legitimate concerns, which should raise questions about the student amenities largely responsible for those costs, such as housing, dining and sports. (Why are so many universities in the sports entertainment business anyway?)
But I suspect the main reason is a deeply held suspicion about the value of the liberal arts, always a prime target for cynics, who, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
The humanities do not necessarily give one skills to get a better job or earn more money. They may, of course, have that effect, but it’s incidental to their purpose, which is to enrich one’s life intrinsically. Subjects such as philosophy, literature, art, music, religious studies, language and history open up the world and make life more interesting.
Professional subjects —like business, education, nursing, physical therapy and engineering — are intended to enrich one’s life extrinsically. They are means to an end, namely, entering into a career. If a student also finds the courses personally fulfilling, so much the better, but that would be a bonus, not the main purpose of study.
A well-rounded program in higher education should do both things. It should prepare a student for life by providing or enhancing the skills required to make a living in the world; it should also give her a better understanding of what to do with that living.
Such understandings are not always immediately evident. Ideas are presented, discussed and contested — some of them take hold, and others are revealed slowly over the course of one’s life.
I remember the professor reciting William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 in my first poetry class. None of us were quite sure why we were there or what we were supposed to get out of it. He tried to explain to us the poignancy of a poem about aging, the loss of youthful energy and vigor, a condition which we, at that time, could barely imagine: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”
The poem returned to me yesterday as my brother and I took our stepfather fishing. We wheeled him down to the dock and positioned his wheelchair on the pontoon. An attack of vasculitis three weeks ago had damaged his nerve endings, leaving him unable to walk or use his hands.
I reflected on that sonnet, introduced to me more than 30 years ago: “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” an invocation of a time and place where music once flourished, but which is now just the shell of a building, a holder of memories. We weren’t really fishing, we were mostly remembering the times we used to fish, times when the sweet birds were still singing.
Shakespeare doesn’t tell us what to do in situations like this. He offers no help with therapy or insurance or medication. But he gives us a language for our experiences. This is what life is like, what it has always been like for human beings. There is consolation and even a kind of beauty in that knowledge, and, as his last lines remind us, there is still love.
What are the humanities worth? I’ve never known how to answer that question, exactly, because I don’t know how to fix a value on love, or goodness, or beauty.