Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Educating Humanists

Okay, guys, you have to read this article from The New York Times, "In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth." It highlights a tension I detected early on throughout my education, though it articulates the problem much more clearly than I ever could.

I remember going through my high school years almost painfully aware that I was one of the few students at all interested in the humanities. My classes were full of Honors English students, but they were generally there purely to get college credits for their resumes when they applied to the Engineering programs at their top nine schools. Often, I was the only person who did any of the readings and discussions came down to what I thought and what the teacher thought.

While this might not appear to be a bad thing upon first glance, there was always the accompanying implication that to be "smart," a student had to excel at the sciences. If I were to pull up a list of the "Most Likely to Succeed" students throughout my high school career, they would all inevitably be students with a strong inclination towards Calculus and Physics, not philosophy or literature. In fact, there were no philosophy classes at my high school, and those of us who would have liked to take more AP humanities courses were just SOL.

When I reached the upper division lit courses at UCLA, my professors praised us for choosing a life "of ideas" over a life "of material wealth." It was understood that one could not be "successful" in today's culture with a humanities degree--unless one pursued an academic career. All of my classes, therefore, were taught in a way that was not meant to enlighten. Instead, we were prepared to take the GRE. While I learned many interesting things in school, I also learned many not-so-interesting things that I would be required to know to get into grad school.

(In addition, so much of what makes the humanities interesting has been lost as literary criticism has surpassed literature in grad school. In an attempt to rival the cut-and-dry, formulaic approach of what is "respectable" (i.e. math and science), literature has been quanitified into schools of thought, branches of criticism--not expanded with the exploration of more ideas. It is for this reason that I doubt I will ever pursue a Masters or Ph.D. in the field.)

Beyond the pressures present in the field, however, is the rapidly shrinking width of the field, as Patricia Cohen explores in the article link above:

"During the second half of the 20th century, as more and more Americans went on to college, a smaller and smaller percentage of those students devoted themselves to the humanities. The humanities’ share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the heyday in the mid- to late ’60s, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new database recently released by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Currently they account for about 8 percent (about 110,000 students), a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade. The low point for humanities degrees occurred during the bitter recession of the early 1980s."
Cohen ultimately concludes that, "The essence of a humanities education — reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming 'to grips with the question of what living is for' — may become 'a great luxury that many cannot afford.'" On the one hand, this is almost to be expected--as the middle classes disappear and the cost of living skyrockets, students must choose practicality over passions.
For example, of all my friends in high school, there was one whom I was absolutely convinced should have been a proefessional musician. He had instincts that the rest of us lacked, practiced for the joy of it, experimented when it would have been easier to stick the beaten trail, and he was good. I had another friend whom I felt should have gone into philosophy--he took ideas and arguments down to their bare bones and constructed them from there, he read voraciously, and he enjoyed debating points that others probably felt were irrelevant. Both of my friends went into engineering programs and would not consider any other way.

I, on the other hand, stuck to my idealistic guns and studied my passion. I took advantage of the inexpensive classes available at my community college and took 22-25 units a semester, when full time was classified as around 12 units. I took astronomy, music, history, philosophy, film history, sociology, psychology, and many science field courses. I did the best I could to make myself a Renaissance thinker.

I now work as a Receptionist.

That really isn't the point, however. We need people who are classically trained in how to think. For all of our scientific advancement (due to an emphasis on the sciences), we have yet to progress at all from a humanist or ethical standpoint. In today's world, there is no questioning of whether or not we should do something just because we can. These issues are boundless: stem cell research, cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene therapy, and so much more. Currently, the only people who object to these kinds of procedures do so from a conservative religious point of view, who claim they are against God' plan and that humans are trying to somehow subvert God's role in the universe.

What we need, however, are people who look at how these procedures affect us, all of us--people and animals and plants and the future of all of us. We can't expect scientists to do this. They are taught from day one to press the boundaries of the possible, to see if something can be done. The more we exclude the humanities from education, the less likely we are to progress from a moral standpoint.

In the words of Abraham Simpson, "I'm afraid of the future."

8 comments:

Homero said...

I've been mulling over my response... until then, I thought you might find this blog post interesting:
http://www.ashokkarra.com/2008/03/exhortation-why-the-liberal-arts-is-there-a-lasting-good-and-why-the-university-of-dallas/

I know you certainly won't agree with all of it, but it's interesting none the less.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I love reading other people's rants--they make me feel justified in the ones I post, though we're all essentially raging at cyberspace.

But what Karra doesn't address is the fact that it is, in part, the academic institutions that are perpetrating this spiralling-of-the-drain. Sure, it's great to tell your five-year-old neice about Heidegger--but until the rest of the country acknowledges that there is value in knowing about Heidegger and Aristotle and Jefferson, there is little external motivations (in the form of economic success) to encourage your neice to do research on her own.

I guess being a "literary" person in a world that doesn't value "literary" people is starting to annoy me. When I tell people at work that I don't own a televesion, they say, "What do you do? READ?" And when I say, yes, I do read, they act shocked and then say something along the lines of "That's cute," as though I'm some kind of anachronistic freak.

Since when were reading and thinking "cute"? Gah.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of Idiocracy...

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

It does, sort of, but the numbers of people attending college have skyrocketed in the last twenty years, so people are getting more educated, but they're learning how to memorize facts, not how to THINK.

Daniele said...

I'll have you know that I did all the reading in high school too! I think the only book I didn't finish was Heart of Darkness and I don't think I really missed out on anything with that one. So Patrick is definitely the one who should have been a professional musician, I thought so too. He still practices all the time although he's really gotten into photography since high school and could probably make a good living on that too. His and Valerie's apartment is decorated almost exclusively with his photos. I'm curious as to who you thought should have been a philosopher though. Also, it might make you feel better to know that I have a bachelor's degree in music and I'll have a masters in medical sciences this coming May, but I'll probably be working as a receptionist as well.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Somehow, despite your incredibly believable protestations, I think I'm the only fool who bothered to read Canticle for Liebowitz. Come on, admit it. Oh, and Turn of the Screw, as well.

And you didn't miss much in Heart of Darkness...

Daniele said...

I freaking loved Canticle for Liebowitz! I actually got it for my roommate's boyfriend for his birthday my sophomore year of college. Turn of the Screw I didn't like, but I did read it...I'm pretty sure...but you still didn't say who the philosopher is...

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

That's because I'm superstitious... I'll message you on Facebook if you really want to know.

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