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What’s Really Happening to the Humanities Under Neoliberalism?

An emphasis on “employable” academic majors is resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which learning is devalued.

(Photo: Pixabay)

The number of college students majoring in English, according to some contested reports, has plummeted. In general, the humanities are taking a back seat to more “pragmatic” majors in college. Students, apparently, are thinking more about jobs than about general learning. Given this trend, should schools be scaling back on the humanities?

I understand these sentiments and concerns completely. I’ve worked at schools where math and science were esteemed, and for good reason. When parents attend school assemblies, the college counselors and deans present course selection mappings. The flow charts for math and science look very impressive, intricate and complex, with many boxes, lines, twists, turns and explanations that require qualifications. Meanwhile, history and English get a few boxes and they appear straightforward. What is this illustrative of? The fact that more time and energy are dedicated to upholding math and science as gospel? It’s possible.

Chipping away at the humanities in schools jeopardizes the issues of social justice in education.

Moreover, after witnessing “regime change” in a school where I taught, the Advanced Placement offerings in the history department alone swelled from two to seven. Within this breakdown, there is another alarming sign: Students overwhelmingly prefer AP government or economics over courses dealing with, say, civil rights. This is likely due to their perception that these AP courses are valued more by people in power since they are the result of an effort to quantify the humanities and make them achievement-oriented instead of collaborative and intellectual.

Some might say that since top universities like MIT have decided to focus on management, business analytics, finance and mathematical economics (or trading), secondary schools should follow suit. It would be a mistake, however, for secondary schools to cave to this argument and scale back on the humanities.

Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, says the idea that the number of students majoring in the humanities has plummeted is untrue, although it is a universal presupposition.

Bérubé contends that while it is true that English enrollments are down in some places since 2008, they are not as bad as they were in the really lean years. Nevertheless, students and families keep hearing the myth that English is a dying subject. This humanities-ending attitude was just recently reflected in April 2016, when Pennsylvania State Rep. Brad Roae (R) proposed ending higher education grants for students studying “poetry or some other pre-Walmart major.”

Bérubé says that the idea that humanities majors won’t be able to find jobs is turning out to be a “zombie belief every bit as hard to kill” as the idea that enrollment in the humanities is plummeting, and Bérubé is positive that the two beliefs are symbiotic.

According to Inside Higher Ed’s Allie Grasgreen, “liberal arts majors may start off slower than others when it comes to the postgraduate career path, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time, a new report shows.”

Grasgreen goes on to report that “by their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are on average making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates.” But that’s just one component of Grasgreen observations. The concerns about the value of a liberal arts degree are essentially unfounded and should be put to rest, she writes.

Too often, we put the curriculum above the students for our own preservation in an effort to satisfy management.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, states that “[there is] a myth out there — that somehow if you major in humanities, you’re doomed to be unemployed for the rest of your life. [The research] suggests otherwise.” Grasgreen cited Humphreys’ indication that “we do need more engineers, but we also need more social workers” and that education need not be an “an either-or proposition.”

Grasgreen highlights the report that Humphreys cowrote, entitled, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” which includes US Census data from 2010 and 2011. It is a joint project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Humphreys, along with researcher Patrick Kelly, looked at long-term career path and salary data as an answer to the myth that liberal arts graduates are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed.

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said it’s a mistake to assume a plummet in the humanities because “there is economic value in liberal arts and humanities degrees at the four-year level.” Carnevale goes on to emphasize, however, the need to pursue graduate studies when pursuing a liberal arts degree.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has noted the reason for this prevailing wisdom about the myth regarding the humanities plummet: It’s largely due to mainstream publications. For instance, in 2013, The New York Times featured an essay titled “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” In 2009, The American Scholar featured an essay, titled “The Decline of the English Department.” Authors cited spirals in the humanities. Even The Chronicle’s Mark Bauerlein wrote, “English has gone from a major unit in the university to a minor one.”

The piece goes on to explain how, back in 2010, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall said, “Students wanting to take up majors like art history and literature are now making the jump to more-specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse.” This comment was juxtaposed with a chart that indicated a spiral. Prominent New York Times journalist David Brooks also jumped on the bandwagon when he remarked, “The humanities [have] turned from an inward to an outward focus.” The “sky is falling” myth then led to serious underfunding, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bérubé argues that mainstream accounts of the decline of the humanities in undergraduate education are “factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong.” He says there was a plummet, but it was between 1970 and 1980.

In reality, English isn’t dying; it’s just that at one time, it was unprecedentedly popular. English majors rose from 17,000 to 64,000 over a span of 30 years, from 1940 to 1970, and then declined to 34,000 by the 1990s. This does not mark a death to the humanities.

Are fields like art history and literature really “elite, niche-market affairs that will render students unemployable,” as Bérubé argues? Are students abandoning the humanities because they are “callow, market-driven careerists?” No, this is not true. Bérubé states that “undergraduate enrollment in the humanities have held steady since 1980 (in relation to all degree holders, and in relation to the larger age cohort), and undergraduate enrollments in the arts and humanities combined are almost precisely where they were in 1970.”

Despite the steady enrollment in the humanities, however, the humanities are increasingly being underfunded at all levels. Graduate education in the humanities is underfunded, mainly because of greed and the desire to promote athletics. Even in some secondary schools, the coaching staff’s combined salaries are disproportionately higher than salaries within the humanities.

Making a Case for the Importance of the Humanities

To win back funding for the humanities, perhaps we must make a new argument for the role of philosophy, religion, literature, language, history, social studies, music and the arts in a world bending toward STEM. Professionals like Bérubé would say that the study of the humanities should constantly remind students that liberal arts are important in order to discuss human values and human relations with the nonhuman world. Schools must oppose what Bérubé would call the “narrow technocratic and instrumental modes of thought.”

Chipping away at the humanities in schools jeopardizes the issues of social justice in education. Arguably, it is safe to say that the humanities and any liberal arts program are undervalued specifically because they involve knowledges, practices and traditions that usually cannot adhere to immediate short-term use by preservation seeking administrations and teachers

It is true that some of the liberal arts and humanities is indeed well-intentioned fluff, especially when there are serious crises in the world regarding climate change, nuclear proliferation and poverty. But right-wing critics of the humanities do not value these larger issues any more than certain elitists on the left.

Students need creativity, intellectual development and the humanities to think about things, but conservatives and liberals alike often instead demand performance in the name of compliance and aptitude. Too often, we put the curriculum above the students for our own preservation in an effort to satisfy management.

To win back financial support for the humanities, we need to fight arguments against their irrelevance, and part of this must involve taking seriously the public backlash against certain esoteric forms of postmodernism. Prof. Noam Chomsky states the problem well. He told me that postmodernists “have tried to create one crazy thing after another to try to be exciting … It kind of gives the impression of being serious. Like you use big words and you have complicated sentences and there’s things nobody can understand, so we must be like physicists because I can’t understand them and they can’t understand me.”

His thoughtful words are a good reminder that even as we resist business- and testing-oriented forms of education, we must also keep the humanities grounded and conducive to helping people.

You need not be a writer, public intellectual or professor to make these criticisms and claims about education. The teachers that value the power of education in their classrooms need to resist the notion that schools are merely training centers for future managers and not institutions of learning and creative thought.

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