For the Humanities, a Table of Doom


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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57 Responses

  1. Avatar Freddie says:

    Because, regardless of your thoughts about the current state of humanities education, hopes to snuff out the humanities altogether are the dreams of barbarians.

    But of course, that is precisely what you are going to prompt here. Libertarianism, being an ideology that is dominated by people who define themselves reactively against the left rather than positively for anything themselves, has a lot of adherents who hate the arts and humanities simply because people on the left cherish them.

    The humanities are 4000 years old. They will endure. What form they will take, I don’t know. Glee that will arise in this space from your sober warnings of their poor health, but people will believe in them and find human strength in them long after their critics are dust.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Well, I’ve certainly encountered those people elsewhere on the Internet- Inside Higher Ed, for instance, seems to attract commenters who believe that people who study the humanities are the worst sort of parasites on society. But I’m optimistic that the regulars here are smart enough to realize that there’s not much logical coherence in defining libertarianism as being opposed to the humanities. (Again, I have seen that done elsewhere, and usually with pretty lousy reasoning.) And, if not, hey, I’ve already called them barbarians.Report

      • Do they specifically self-identify as libertarians? Because most of the libertarians I come across appear well-read friends of the academy.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          They pretend to be making libertarian arguments, but I’d imgine many people here would smack them.Report

        • Avatar DougJ says:

          I don’t see a lot of attacks on universities at Cato or Reason, but Megan McArdle certainly spends a lot of time attacking universities.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe says:

            Reason goes after the educational establishment as much as McArdle and most other self-described libertarians do.
            (search their site for either ‘professor’ ‘academics’, or ‘university’). Most of it is in the context of finding excess or uuntenanable promises wrt public funded institutions, and the pitched battle against for-profit colleges.

            But all these from Cato, Reason, McArdle and the rest are no more an attack on the academy* or a war on science or any of the other terms of reference than pointing out the wasteful bloated ineffective spending of the US Department of Defense means you hate Teh Troops.

            *is their some culture-war team red team blue latter day red-baiting that goes on? (particularly from Moynihan?) Sure. And the commenters became near intolerable right around the run up to not the 2010 election, but the 2008 one – there’s entire sites dedicated to documenting their whisky tango foxtrots.Report

        • Avatar Will H. says:

          Yes, I was curious as to how many would self-identify as barbarians.

          Frankly, I’m considering it myself right now.Report

          • Avatar Will H. says:

            Now is the time for all good men, men of conscious and of courage, to rally to the call of Barbarism.
            Upon reflection, any reasoned view would hold that only Barbarism might provide the clear vision and decisive leadership to see us through our current economic crisis.
            Where once did Barbarism stand in disrepute, it now lies as a command on the heart of every man who would hold Liberty as his right; that through strength, courage, and conviction– together in our bonds of Barbarism– we might lay claim to a brighter future.
            The New Day of Barbarism has dawned in that Shining City on a Hill. Let no man stand in our way– for the time for Barbarism has come!Report

    • Avatar Sam MacDonald says:

      ” a lot of adherents who hate the arts and humanities simply because people on the left cherish them.”

      Huh? “People on the left” cherish arts and humanities? I guess this is this why all the guys down at the union hall are always talking about Edward Said out by the horseshoe pits.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Throughout, oh, the last 100 years or so, how many different courses/departments have been dropped/added by the colleges old enough to have a 1911 course catalog lying around?

    I honestly don’t know the answer.

    Have most colleges only added courses and areas of study? Have there been any to fall by the wayside from then to now?

    If courses have been culled semi-regularly from colleges, how much overlap between them has there been? To use a joking example, has every college dropped its course in Luminiferous AEther Studies? To use a more serious example, has Sanskrit been dropped more often than kept?

    Is there a point at which a college can say “we had X students sign up for this course in 1990, Y in 2000, and Z in 2010… we’re dropping the course” and it be a defensible decision? (Assuming, of course, X > Y > Z)Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I’d imagine there would be some point in which a department is really just a think-tank- but it’s generally not so much that the departments on the chopping block are irrelevant or lacking enough majors to survive- it’s usually more a matter of ranking all of the departments by number of enrolments and axing the ones at the bottom of the list.

      The other thing is your examples involve subjects that have either become irrelevant or are very esoteric. Absolutely, if you want to learn to read coptic, you have only a few universities to attend. And I’d imagine there aren’t any universities offering phrenology. But, Latin and Theatre? I mean, you’d expect the enrolments to go down in a time of recession because the students are all terrified about their futures. But to decide that, from this time forth, studying Latin is no longer academically worthwhile?

      It seems a bit shortsighted is all I’m saying.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        The other thing is your examples involve subjects that have either become irrelevant or are very esoteric.

        Dude. I got my degree in Philosophy (with a minor in Religious Studies) of all things. I have much love (pounds chest) for the Humanities.

        But I encountered no end of folk who explained, to my face, that my degree covered subjects that were irrelevant/esoteric.

        I, of course, disagree.

        But when I was still wiping down a lunch counter during the day and looking at a resume that had nothing but food service jobs and a philosophy degree on it in the evening, it was sometimes difficult to have untroubled sleep at night.

        It seems a bit shortsighted is all I’m saying.


        But it also makes sense to me. I’d love for there to be enough gentlefolk out there to have forgotten Latin and Greek… but I remember staring at the ceiling in 1997, of all years. We were in the middle of a boom!

        I can’t imagine staring at a resume with nothing but food service and a philosophy degree today.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          I’m not going to encourage anyone to major in coptic in this economic atmosphere. But, it’s worth noting that SUNY Albany isn’t just removing the major- they’re removing the programs altogether. So, if you’re a student there, you can’t even take French as your language requirement (if they even have a language requirement anymore)- you can pretty much only take Spanish. To my mind, cuts like this are just going to lower the value of attending their university. Because, even in tough times, most students don’t see their four years as being only about job training.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            How many people have been signing up for these classes in recent years? How many minors? How many majors?

            I feel like I’m missing out on some spectacularly relevant information.

            If it comes out that they had fewer students taking the courses than showed up for lacrosse tryouts, getting rid of the program might make a lot more sense than if French 1 was the course that all of the kids who took AP French in high school took on as a gut course their first year.

            Without this info, I don’t know how angry or sad to be.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Here we go…

              Eloise Brière, an associate professor of French studies, said that the seven tenured French faculty members each year collectively teach about 500 students who are not majors, about 40 at various stages of the major, and about 40 graduate students. She said that these numbers may seem low compared to departments that are able to have large introductory courses with hundreds of students.

              500 students and 40 majors?

              According to , it costs about 20K/year for an in-state student to go there… that’s 800K/year in majors alone.

              Something does not make sense here.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                Well, it’s relative- I mean they’re judged in relation to other departments, so the French department might have 500 students and still be at the bottom of the pile. The idea generally is to find departments that are “underperforming” in relation to the other departments in the university. The business school probably gets 500 students for some of its introductory courses.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, I’m sure that they used the French Department because that had 500 students taking various classes rather than the Russian department (one of the comments to the article mentioned majors being in the single digits for that).

                But you see colleges buying big water fountains because accouterments (FRENCH!!!) are important… I mean, if the college down the road has a water fountain you’ve got to have one too, right?

                But axing the department that has 500 students in it while purchasing things you can’t even pronounce unless you know someone who knows French?

                As if there won’t be a number of quality students who won’t instead spend their loans somewhere else because you’ve abandoned French?

                “But look at this fountain!” ain’t gonna cut it.

                That said… I kinda understand axing Russian.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Oh, and on top of that, I can’t help but wonder if the *PRICE* of a degree has much to do with this.

          If it costs 6 or 7 grand a year to go to school, it’s not that big a deal to get a degree in the irrelevant or esoteric. If, however, it costs 30 grand a year for a resident?Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Apparently the university’s single instructor in Greek and Latin was not a major drain on the budget.

    “*was* a major drain on the budget” correct? (and used ironically, of course)

    hopes to snuff out the humanities altogether are the dreams of barbarians

    I believe this is what one calls in the humanities departments ‘attacking a person of dried long grass heritage’. Asking ‘Hey, can we consolidate all the “Classic Studies” program in the SUNY system at a single campus and make it excellent because all our excellent profs are now in one place and tell the yutes of New York (and elsewhere) “Hey, you wanna study some Sew-Crates and Ver-Jill? Come on over to our excellent program at our campus here” and possibly save some money doing so?” is not quite the same as wishing to “snuff out the humanities.”Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      No, I wasn’t referring to SUNY Albany there; I was thinking more of those people who will argue that the humanities as such are “irrelevant”, a “waste” of time and money, and the culture can now do without them. I’d sure hope they’re not the ones in charge at universities! However, as Freddie suggested, that attitude is legion on the Internet (I’m more optimistic about our commenters though).Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I have little pity for the University in its current predicament. As with another venerable institution, the Catholic Church, when the university lost its mystery it lost its reason for being. It’s high time for a change, anyway. I get these earnest kiddoes fresh out of CompSci majors and a great many of them cannot think their way out of a wet paper bag. In my profession, those who can, do. Those that can’t, teach, and they’re teaching skills with the shelf life of a freshly caught mackerel. Pitiful creatures, they might as well have degrees in Buggy Whip Theory. They remain blissfully unencumbered by any semblance of an actual education.

    The university has two sovran purposes: to teach us to think and to stir us up among people our own age. Since first grade, we’ve been stuffed full of facts like so many Strasbourg geese about to be turned into fois gras. College, like kindergarten, gives us some freedom, allows us to play for a while, to learn as we always should have learned, via investigation. In college, we learn to fly like so many awkward young eagles flapping their wings. We will be harnessed to the plow of work soon enough: college is where our minds are fed before the Quest for the Paycheck and the endless rounds of diapers begin in earnest. Alma mater, the foster mother.

    These days (how unutterably sad I am to use that phrase!) the Internet gives us all sorts of information, unparsed and un-vetted, none of it especially trustworthy. If the Liberal Arts are to remain relevant, they must join forces with the other great intellectual pursuit, philosophy, to teach us the truth of the human condition.

    There’s still gold in them thar hills of French History, especially the French Revolution, where one old world was pulled down in haste without an adequate replacement. Francis the First, perhaps France’s most intelligent king, is a whole education unto himself. It’s my contention Francis the First imported the Renaissance from the Ottomans. He collected books, he founded libraries, he insisted on receiving a copy of every book published in France. And it was Francis the First who cared for the dying Leonardo da Vinci.

    The Liberal Arts forgot its mission and I cannot say why. Its mission was to teach us how to sort out the gold from the gravel, how to learn, how to do bullshit detection, how to spot fallacies and weak thinking. Its mission was to teach us to be human, not to climb the ivory tower.Report

    • Avatar DougJ says:

      I think the trouble is that thinking is hard and students will often gravitate towards areas where they don’t have to think as much.

      That said, all this stuff about kids not knowing/thinking as much today as they used to is wrong, I think. My students are infinitely more thoughtful than most older people I know.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        I did not say kids aren’t thinking as much as they were in Days of Yore. My point can be confined to this premise: a college education cannot hope to be relevant to the workplace if it’s just teaching technology and MBA-speak. If that’s what you want, go to DeVry or buy a geek book from O’Reilly Media on Technology X. Just understand that sort of education has a short shelf life.

        The university will always have outlets for its weak thinkers and the boosters will always find some way to get some dumbass linebacker’s Wonderlic score over the hurdle. When the football coach makes more than the university president and the rest of the faculty combined, maybe it’s high time the university as we understand it should be abolished.Report

        • Avatar mark boggs says:

          I needs me a “like” button for this.Report

        • Avatar DougJ says:

          I cede to no one in my hatred of big-time and semi-big-time college athletics, but the thing is this: there are plenty of universities where the football coaches don’t make that much, where nearly all the sports are Division III.

          Things aren’t as far gone as you think in that regard.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            The university has returned to its classical roots: the pampered scions of the powerful are taught by intelligent slaves. We call them Teacher’s Assistants these days but their role is very much the same.Report

  5. Avatar DougJ says:

    “Ultimately, if the humanities are going to survive, academics are going to need to speak to the public much more often and vehemently about what they do. ”

    This is very true, but what’s the right venue?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      In the workplace, that’s where. I can train someone to code. I can’t teach him to think. I don’t have the time. He should have learn critical thinking back in college instead of some obsolete technology.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I haven’t figured this out, frankly. I try to talk to anyone I meet who might be interested about it and blog some too- but, let’s be honest, that’s only a step above pissing in the wind. Television is clearly not going to replace the Housewives of Gomorrah with a show about the humanities. A documentary might be an interesting project, although I think the audience for documentaries is basically the same as that for NPR and they probably already know about the issue. Finally, there is drama- I really liked the way that The History Boys portrayed the profession of teaching in the humanities.

      I guess the real question is how to counter the widespread belief that humanities professors spend most of their time in the classroom screaming “Say you love Mao!” at the students. Because, clearly, that message is getting airtime.Report

      • Avatar DougJ says:

        In any case, I am surprised and pleased to see this post here. I had imagined that the attitude here towards higher education would be “privatize it to unleash the free market and eliminate teh librul bias”.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke says:

        Now, now, Rufus. They’re far too clever to pledge allegiance to Mao. The technique is far more sophisticated and insidious. a) the US sucks b) marxism has never been applied properly.

        The key is to obviate the number of letters between a) and b).

        Not that they would be so foolish to pledge allegiance to Marxism by name either, although tenure might let you get away with that somewhat and make you really cool and transgressive in that banal radical chic sort of way.

        It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a classroom, but that most of our correspondents [not here at loOG, but generally speaking] are illiterate on your Hayek and Mises let alone your Aquinases and Burkes, tells me that perhaps their stories are getting short shrift let alone charitable readings.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Tom, you say you haven’t been in a classroom for some time now. So, it is concievable that some of this is pretty speculative, isn’t it?

          I can’t say for others, but I taught Burke’s ‘Reflections on the French Revolution’ last week and was very charitable about it. I wouldn’t judge all of academia by the levels of aliteracy you encounter in the culture.Report

          • Avatar tom van dyke says:

            Rufus, I believe you yourself noted you’re the exception, not the rule.

            And if you’re not getting all the props you deserve right now, a few years down the road, your students will realize where they first heard of the things they really need to know about, like Edmund Burke. Cheers, this Bud’s for you.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. says:

              Right, I might be unique (and everyone likes to think they’re unique), but I have also spent over a decade taking courses in about four different universities and the closest I’ve seen to the sort of unprofessional behavior that conservatives have told me is commonplace was one professor when I was at William & Mary who did a four minute mini-lecture on Marx and then, at the end, said, in an amusingly nervous voice, “I know lots of people don’t like Marx, but I think he had some neat ideas”, before quickly moving on. It was a bit shy of the constant denigration of America and conservatives that I was told to expect before entering academia.

              Admittedly, I didn’t go to UC Berkeley. And I’m not saying that bias isn’t a problem- I used the example of the speaker joking about conservatives, since hey we’re all liberals here, to make the point that it is. BUT, there are two arguments conservatives make about bias- 1. People in academia have underlying biases that over time have made the profession less open to conservative ideas than it should be, 2- People in academia spend their class time trying to indoctrinate students into left-wing ideologies. I’m not saying that either is completely and totally untrue (there’s probably someone at UC Berkeley doing something unprofessional that people will ask me to atone for at some point). However, I’ve found that #1 does square with my own experiences and observations, while #2 really does not. Having asked people in the profession who are considerably more conservative than I am, and have been there longer, they’ve tended to agree with that.

              And, for the record, I read Burke as an undergrad because a professor assigned him.Report

  6. Avatar Lyle says:

    100 years ago states had thre different kinds of post secondary education, (west of the original 13) There was in general a state university with liberal arts and the private colleges, there was a land grant school (A&M age and mechanics) designed for engineers and ag types, and the normal schools (to teach teachers). Since they all have become universities and tried to be all things to all people. Note that Suny Albany started out as a normal school and became a teachers college in 1914 only becoming a full university in 1962. If you look at the older model 2 of the 3 types of institutions were primarily vocational in nature. As noted in an earlier comment it would be interesting to look at 1911 catalogues for these institutions and see what has been added.
    However it is clear that the original intent of many of the state post secondary institutions (and in the case of the land grant with federal support) were built for vocational purposes.
    Note that its not only humanities Michigan State killed off the earth sciences program completely as well. Tulane downsized its engineering programs after Katrina. So its a function of the programs productivity and the need for graduates. In the case of MI, you still have major programs at Ann Arbor and at Michigan Tech (Houghton) really the old Michigan school of mines.
    Perhaps this suggests that the idea of the comprehensive university’s time may have come and gone and more speciliazation in mission is needed. After all its not like in New York State you can’t find humanities programs.Report

  7. Avatar Sam MacDonald says:

    “Ultimately, if the humanities are going to survive, academics are going to need to speak to the public much more often and vehemently about what they do.”

    This sounds nice. But is it true? Let’s say a group of Fench literary historians put together a road show and went to shopping malls, bowling alleys, saloons and other places like that to discuss their work. You name the format. Posters? Documentaries? Town-hall style meetings? Reality TV shows? Whatever.

    I suspect that after they get done conveying the true depth and breadth of their work, peope would be LESS supportive of the humanities.

    Now, if the archaeologists or forensic pathologists were to go out and do the road show, sure. People would support them. That kind of work is largely seen as “cool.”

    But if you go to a bowling alley and tell people, “I am using tax dollars to explore the intersection of language and culture in post colonial Africa, with a special emphasis on the transfer of literary form into tribal dialects,” I suspect people will be writing letters to their congressman the next day. And they won’t be the letters you are hoping for.

    I am not saying that kind of work isn’t important. It is. But it’s not the kind of stuff most people are interested in.

    Perhaps retrenchment and working in silence is the better plan. Especially when the unemployment rate is 10 percent.Report

    • I kind of optimistically think all it would take for people to get interested in French History is to have public readings of Les Miserables at airport security lines.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      A similar argument is often made within the corporate context for and against basic research. When I’ve consulted for Japanese firms, they book my invoices on the capital side of the equation, since I’m imparting knowledge.

      IBM and Microsoft treat their basic research divisions much the same way. Can’t speak for every company, but someone has to do the groundwork, often seemingly unrelated to any market.

      The brief for the Humanities is quite direct: every industry, every occupation, requires a working knowledge of humanity itself. When a computer scientist teaches Truth Tables or Software Patterns or the Fourth Normal Form of Database Design, he teaches nothing new. He exposes his students to what cannot be improved upon, the basics of his craft.

      In the teaching of French History, the professor specializes to a single important culture. The teaching of Mathematics is no less a history than French History: every student who advances in mathematics follows the historical track of the mathematicians. We learn Algebra before Calculus because the Venetians invented Algebra before Newton and Leibniz invented Calculus to solve problems Algebra was ill-suited to certain tasks. But the Principia Mathematica was not presented using the Calculus, Newton gave it to us in Algebra, because that is what the mathematicians of the day understood.

      In any event, the Math and Science Departments are not held to account for their seeming inability to put every student majoring in their respective disciplines into jobs entirely relevant to their studies. If education is to serve any useful purpose, it must include something of human beings in the context of history, lest we send forth a generation of obtuse pedants into the workplace, where humanity actually lives and works, a world where Literature and History and yes, even the History of Accounting might be useful.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Sam, I get what you’re saying, but, at the very least, the “I’m using tax dollars” part of that does suggest a misconception in the eyes of the public that humanities profs could stand to clear up- namely, that a heck of a lot of us are not using tax dollars to do research. I’ve gotten a few grants from private funding sources and otherwise it’s been privately funded from my pocket. The only people I know who have gotten public money are the ones with Fulbrights and I’ve actually only known one person who got one of those.

      Now, should people who get Fulbrights have to explain their work to the public? It might be an interesting exercise and actually worthwhile for their work.

      But, for me, the only public funds I get are for instruction, and there it’s about 25% of my check. I did the math this semester and the difference between the portion of my check that comes from state funds and the portion that is witheld for taxes was about $10 per week, which is about $3.35 per hour of instruction, so hopefully the public feels they’re getting their money’s worth.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        (Insert discussion of the fungibility of money here followed by discussion of debate over taxes funding pharmaceutical companies, abortion, and/or religious speech here)Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      “But if you go to a bowling alley and tell people, “I am using tax dollars to explore the intersection of language and culture in post colonial Africa, with a special emphasis on the transfer of literary form into tribal dialects,” I suspect people will be writing letters to their congressman the next day. And they won’t be the letters you are hoping for.”

      I’m not sure how true this is.

      Most people don’t like books, they aren’t good at reading, and they’d never set foot in a library. But ask them, should the library be funded?

      “Oh yes, reading is important, learning is good.”

      I think it’s a matter of what becomes part of the national mantra. Those who would spend LESS on education, of any kind, rather than more, if only given a choice between the two, are still a relative minority I think.Report

  8. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    Reminds me of PhD Comics’ take (first of five parter). My favorite quotes,

    Administrator: Gerard, we asked your department head to give us justification for the humanities. This is what she said. “You boorish barbarians! Just give us the money and leave us alone!”
    Gerard: It’s hard to explain monetarily, but how can you put a price tag on the human soul? The humanities help us appreciate beauty and grow as individuals. What good are science and technology if we don’t ask ourselves the question, what does it mean to be a human being?
    Gerard: OK, so maybe the humanities aren’t “useful”, but this isn’t about utility! The humanities are about searching for hope in a world filled with irrationality, hardship and confusing truths….

    I don’t really get why you pin the blame on deconstructionists, as if critics of the humanities are making a methodological complaint, if only you’d stuck to structuralism everything would be fine. I hear more often a utility-based complaint, they want to see the widgets humanities scholars make and they have a narrow vision of what counts as “real” research and what doesn’t.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I don’t think they brought the attacks on themselves. I just think that they’ve put themselves in a bad position to respond to them. Those methodologies did more to isolate the humanities from the rest of the culture than most academics realize. I’m a big believer in the idea that we need to “make it relevant” again and my opinion is that most of those methodologies served to make wide-open subjects into narrow, jargon-heavy specializations. But your results may vary.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        I was listening to a Philosophy Bites episode that had several philosophers try to define philosophy. The one mentioned something along the lines of that philosophy is about imagination and possibility. He then notes that the French theorists helped refreshing philosophy from his analytic pursuits, but then quickly took it to far, becoming just as esoteric and irrelevant.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        Rufus, in the assessing these methodologies, how does one know what is relevant in advance? That is, before any knowledge has been generated about a given subject. Not to say deconstruction will reach these lofty heights, but imaginary numbers and the electron were not useful at first discovery then later demonstrated their importance.

        Say we take whether or not a method has been applied by other disciplines with successful results as the benchmark, like game theory’s travels through various disciplines. The deconstruction purveyors have contributed to, at least, constructivism in political science. Not only breaking apart the national interest, human nature, and the state into component parts, but also identity itself and mapping the consequences in international relations. Not the only way to understand IR, but an important addition all the same.

        As for “narrow, jargon-heavy specializations”, that just seems like a feature of the academy itself. I’m all for breaking down barriers, more public lectures, more blogging, and more general interest academic writing, but I think you’re putting a lot on the shoulders of deconstruction.

        For the record, my friends and I would joke, at deconstruction’s expense, for deconstruction everything’s floating, and writing in opaque language hardly endears it to the budding scholar, but there is some there there.Report

  9. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Deconstruction and Analytic philosophy both seem to hide out in their towers for the most part, leaving the larger bit of the undergraduate square littered with theory, criticism, and cultural interp that amounts to superficial soundbites less appetizing than what the un-unionized dining hall staff serve up for lunch.

    I think there is a large disconnect between what people what and what university thinks people want. People want jobs. They are told the ability to “think critically” and “communicate effectively” will do this. Universities don’t foster these things though, cause high expectations and rigorous grading my scare to many 20 year old kiddies away. As a result a bunch of kids (though still a minority) have half baked degrees that impress employers on paper only and aren’t much use besides collecting dust.

    I forget who mentioned it above, but I think university (having just graduated from one less than a year ago) would do better to “brand” themselves uniquely and effectively (and in actuality).

    St. John’s does this. Whether or not you like their program, they have a specific course of study and you know what you are getting. When you graduate, you’re not just another college grad from a certain size school that may or may not have appeal outside of it’s region.

    Most schools should specialize, not in niche areas, subjects, or research pursuits, but in the particular regiment they want to offer.

    The university really did fail when it started to be all things to all people. I know historically and in name that is the intent. But the post-colonial break down of canon and legitimate elitism has left universities (at least in undergrad) as giant food courts serving up watered down humanities made to order.

    Math and the natural sciences have escaped this to some degree, I think, for the very reason that they do have canon. If you learn calc, you learn calc. I’m not abdicating that all universities should have the same course of study, but that each should pick out narrower philosophies of the “liberal arts” and actually offer something particular.

    Every university probably thinks this would be suicide (and the way federal funds are located, perhaps it would be) but I think that they would find consumers of higher ed would not balk at being offered the opportunity to attend institution x that has a reputation for yielding y type graduates.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic says:

      This is a reasonable perspective, and from your comment you seem well aware of the alternative case, but I’ll put it to you anyway, the alternate view is that a university is a community of scholars and the resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

      I’m only familiar with this “for instance” because more knowledgeable people have pointed it out to me an example, ie this is well clear of anything I study so you’d find my familiarity with actual developments in this field wanting. That said, the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiatives at various universities are examples of drawing upon scholarship from a number of disciplines, including the humanities, to gain knowledge that satisfies even the utilitarian outlook,

      Harvard, fostering progress on critical problems at the interfaces of key disciplines – brain science, cognitive science, development, medicine, and the humanities – concerned with the human mind, brain and behavior.

      Columbia, This compelling endeavor will require the intellectual resources of the entire university. Columbia is committed to expanding the realm of traditional neuroscience to include other disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology on the more macroscopic level, and physics, chemistry, bioengineering, nanotechnology, computer sciences on the other.

      Personally I’m convinced by the argument that the humanities are valuable in and of themselves, and the many “full service” universities are a strength of American higher ed, not a weakness – but that may only convince the already converted.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        I think I agree with you about the multi-disciplinary approaches to learning an research afforded by having it all under one roof.

        That I do think is important. But I think having someone to tie that together is the missing thread.

        In a lot of places, “multi-disciplinary” breaks down into a slew of gen-eds that are completely disconnected and rely on the individual to try and form a common narrative. I’m not saying that all universities should have rigid conceptual schemes into which there offerings should fit. Just that, if you’re going to have all these different departments, have some way, right or wrong, that they fit together.

        Required electives seem to just lead to everyone taking whatever they want, with half (I’ll be optimistic) looking to pursue their academic/intellectual interests, and the other half looking for the easy A (or B- rather). I feel like an even slight improvement would be for a particular university to say, here we demand that half of all credits you take are these. Rather than offer 30 different intro science classes that fit the requirement, offer 3 that all relate to certain common themes from the limited offerings in the lit/history requirements.

        I think part of what is lacking is a guiding structure of classes organized around a some core shared material.

        On the one hand its great going into a class where everyone has completely different subject backgrounds, but at the same time you then lack a shared language for discussing, or a common pillar of thought to rage against/defend. I think there is a way to mediate the free for all better is all I’m getting at.Report