Crisis in the Humanities Redux

The crisis in the humanities conversation has been around for awhile. It’s inherently bound up with what we think colleges ought to be doing: teaching the life of the mind or preparing students for a profession. In the past, the university was able to do both because it only trained young men for one profession really, the clergy. Other professions were slowly added, including the law, medicine, and academic professions such as science, math, literature, etc., but there has always been a tension between the university and the professions in our contemporary language–i.e. an office job of some sort. The university was not designed to train people to work in business. Indeed, the class and status structures that guarded entrance to American and British universities well into the twentieth century were anti-commerce. The university trained men to certain virtues thought to be necessary to genteel society/the old professions; business lacked those virtues for a variety of reasons, but mostly because commerce does not recognize old world class lines. The GI Bill and similar legislation in England post WWII changed the make up of university students, but it didn’t change this fundamental tension.

I think the above is important context for the crisis in the humanities question, which so many people wade into mid-stream. It’s inherently a class question, but it’s also one about what we want university students to learn–discreet skill sets for the work world or something else, something older and altogether less work world directed. This question has taken on more urgency as more and more politicians and state legislatures take pot shots at the humanities in their march towards reducing university funding. Why fund something that doesn’t equate to an immediate job, or so goes the line of thought.

Yet, a line of defense is emerging as more and more people argue that the humanities do something more that is necessary for living, not just working. John Horgan defends teaching the humanities to engineering students is just one installment.


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