Discover more from Book Post
Notebook: (2) Who Killed the Humanities?
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Read Part One of this post here!
On top of becoming vassals to standardized tests tied to salaries, promotions, even school closures, teachers have more recently, with librarians, become moving targets in culture-war attacks drawing venom from the impossible position they found themselves in during lockdown. The profession of teaching is starting to look as self-sacrificing as, say, being a paratrooper. Other possible careers for humanities majors (leaving aside law, which Heller oddly omits)—publishing, bookselling, writing, journalism—are in existential crisis. The very businesses that are underwriting the giant STEM facilities on campus ogled in Heller’s essay have indifferently plundered the “content generating” professions to fuel their rise, to the point where they now are threatening to eliminate the need for content generation itself with machines programmed to reprocess everything that content generators have ever produced as our future reading diet.
One can hardly expect the bright, ambitious young aspirants at Arizona and Harvard to ignore the appalling career prospects before them, so different from those that faced even Nathan Heller not so many years ago. But beyond this quite sufficient explanation for the decline in humanities majors, how can students not also be getting the message sent about the value to society of stewardship of its intellectual heritage? Heller notes that students are aware that cultural subjects are no longer valued on the public stage. “They like being part of vibrant debate and discussion—it’s one reason we continue to see strong enrollments around Black studies,” one observer told him. The adults in Nathan Heller’s essay (including Nathan Heller) waver over whether or not to accept the new terms of reference. Some argue that the humanities should lean into their salience for the social issues that are of interest to students—racial representation, identity, climate change, media, the ethics and social history of science. Professors mold curricula around students’ interests. Did the humanities err in becoming too theoretical, too politicized, too remote from the experience of reading? Or is adopting the language of science, addressing contemporary social issues, creating a distinct professional vocabulary the way forward? (It has certainly been a point of frustration—and worry—for me that the politics of literary study seem so inhospitable to actual politics; they seem, in their dialectical purity, actively to discourage students from doing things like working for a candidate or lobbying a legislator.)
There is a whisper of anxiety that by giving away too much the study of the humanities loses its essence: it is part of the point to learn to see oneself in the language of the past, to train oneself to step outside contemporary preoccupations. Study of material that is too familiar is like looking in the mirror. I was often troubled seeing middle- and high-school syllabi festooned with contemporary fiction, novels written for the twenty-first century adult. Were children being asked to do anything here more deliberate than to think like their parents (and teachers)? Today’s pre-senior readers also reputedly linger over the young-adult fiction that boomed during their childhoods. I was startled to read in an interview with a retiring publishing executive (looking for this!) that young people seeking publishing jobs today all aspire to work in YA; in my time, the unrealistic expectation would have been literary fiction. Professors note meanwhile that attacks on the “canon” have undermined the whole notion that there is a valuable intellectual inheritance to be contemplated; students have drawn the lesson that critiquing work from the past as “problematic” is the only reputable form of analysis. Yet no one seems quite sure what they want from the study of the humanities except to keep their jobs.
Ben Schmidt and others (one more) have pointed out that even now humanities study is actually more professionally advantageous than students think it is: professions in “the humanities” may be contracting, but employers still look for candidates who can articulate themselves and evaluate an argument, and these skills obsolesce more slowly than technical knowledge and are valued higher up the leadership ladder. One tech observer tweeted in response to Nathan Heller’s piece, “as a tech reporter, it's clear to me that STEM majors need more humanities courses so as to not destroy the world.” Nathan Heller quoted a somewhat disturbing disclosure by one student that only chumps have, you know, jobs: “A lot of it has to do with us seeing—they call them ‘influencers’ online. I’m twenty-one. People my age have crypto. People have agents working on their banking and trading. Instead of working nine to five for your fifteen-dollar minimum wage, you can value your time.” She attributes this transcendence of working life to “progressiveness” in her thinking: “She and her peers had grown up in an age that saw the lie in working for the Man.” The humanities might yet have something to offer a person oriented around such a worldview.
Book Post supports readers and writers
Across a fractured media landscape
Subscribe to support our work
The students in Heller’s piece who are first-generation college goers and need for their education to make a financial difference for them speak eloquently for their situation, but we have perhaps allowed the corporate sponsors too great a hand in defining advantageous outcomes of higher education. Beyond creating a greater voice in career advisory for those looking for more broadly educated employees I’d ask a bigger question. Prognosticators now speak of Universal Basic Income and the post-work generation. We do not need to accept that the environment handed to us by economic exigency, defined by a technology industry to which we voluntarily gave too much power, is the only one we are allowed to have. We have the ability to channel our resources differently. If we chose, in our vast wealth, to find the means to pay people to teach literature and art and philosophy and religion, and to work in bookstores and libraries and publishing houses, and to translate and edit literature—as to some degree we once did—then not only do those things become viable professions, but we are living in a society that is rich in literature and art and philosophy and religious understanding. Likewise music and art and dance (not to mention history, which seems somewhat to fall between the chairs here, though it has an even more pragmatically compelling case to make for itself). A society in which people have the tools to consider existential questions, to evaluate difference, to find energy and purpose in adversity. To fill solitude and empty hours with reflection and expansiveness, to envision greatness, to imagine alternative destinies. Perhaps some of our towns from which industry has fled would find themselves less demoralized, less susceptible to nihilistic appeals. For much of human history, culture and study have been the preserve of the rich. History’s aristocrats did not hire private tutors for their children for vocational training. We have the opportunity to create a truly democratic culture, but we don’t seem very interested in taking it.
In the preface to The Education of Henry Adams, in 1903, Henry Adams wrote, “the active-minded young man should ask of his teacher only mastery of his tools. The young man himself, the subject of education, is a certain form of energy; the object to be gained is economy of his force; the training is partly the clearing away of obstacles, partly the direct application of effort.” In The Mis-Education of the Negro, in 1933, Carter W. Woodson wrote, “Every element of our population should be taught to develop from within … in its present predicament the race is especially in need of vision and invention to give humanity something new. The world does not want and will never have the heroes and heroines of the past. What this age needs is an enlightened youth not to undertake the tasks like theirs but to imbibe the spirit of these great men and answer the present call of duty with equal nobleness of soul.” And Black education reformer Anna Julia Cooper wrote in 1930,
‘Higher education’ has
fallen under the disrepute of being ‘mere culture’ or professional or ‘gentlemanly’ training. In any exact thinking, culture is the term for those studies which disclose the child to himself and put him into possession of his dormant faculties … The industries and ideals of a nation cannot but be enriched by the sound of intelligence of all the people derived from thorough general education in its schools … The Report of the Committee at the Nashville meeting of the National Council of Education set forth in the following words the truth which should always be borne in mind in the matter of educational programs: ‘Society should see to it that the child who cannot choose the family into which he shall be born, shall have given him the best possible heritage fortune could bring him, namely, an education that awakens him to the consciousness of the higher self that exists dormant in him.’
If we have failed to communicate to our kids that study and stewardship of the intellectual legacy that is theirs is of use to them, this is a failure that goes back further than freshman year, and will haunt us all well beyond their graduation.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
Summer reading! Join Mona Simpson and Book Post for a weekly Middlemarch book group, beginning June 4! Book Post’s bookselling partner Tertulia is offering Book Post subscribers a 25 percent discount and free shipping on the pair of Middlemarch and Mona’s new novel, Commitment for the occasion. Learn more here.
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to our paying subscribers’ in-boxes, as well as free posts like this one from time to time to those who follow us. We aspire to grow a shared reading life in a divided world. Become a paying subscriber—or give Book Post as a gift!—to support our work and receive our straight-to-you book posts. Among our posters: John Banville, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Padgett Powell, Zoe Heller.
The book discovery app Tertulia is Book Post’s current partner bookseller. Book Post subscribers are eligible for a free three-month membership in Tertulia, providing a 10 percent discount and free shipping, among other benefits. Sign up here. Tertulia is offering other special deals for subscribers on books we have featured in Book Post: find out more here.
Book Post partners with booksellers to link to their books and support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens across the land. Book Post receives a small commission when you buy a book from Tertulia through one of our posts.
If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like.”