kitchen table math, the sequel: oh, the humanity!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

oh, the humanity!

Having taught English composition to college freshman for the past two years in the context of a traditional English course, I conclude that: the humanities are kaput.

Not an original observation, I know, but until now I hadn't seen the phenomenon up close.

The humanities are not kaput at the college where I teach, by the way. The college where I teach is a holdout for traditional English (and grammar!): an outpost. But the very fact that traditional English is holding on at my college may actually be evidence for the kaputness of the humanities elsewhere.

(Which reminds me....a while back I downloaded a series of lectures on American literature by a professor at Yale. I should find those and listen to one just to see.)

This week I have been stumbling upon near-daily evidence that the humanities as we once knew them are no more.

Yesterday, for instance, I came across a film professor at Appalachian State University, I think it was, explaining that the purpose of education is to expose 18-year olds to "diversity," thus eliminating "hate."


College eliminates hate via affirmative action enrollment.

(What is the purpose of college for the diverse people whose presence on campus is so educational for their white counterparts? Not addressed.)

Then today I listened to a 10-minute Stanford podcast, an interview with a Stanford English professor, on the Book of Genesis. I was excited to discover the podcast, which I'd forgotten I had, because I teach 3 chapters from the Book of Genesis in my composition class. Also, I'm reading the Bible (trying to), and I'm interested in the Bible.

But the interview was a great disappointment. Mostly, the professor spent his time talking about why anyone should want to read the Book of Genesis in the first place.

To be fair, the interviewer had pretty much asked, going in, "Why on Earth are we reading the Book of Genesis?" She asked nicely, but the fact that she asked at all: more evidence the humanities are dead. Dead or not doing their job.

Of course, given the fact that the humanities are not doing their job, "Why are we reading the Book of Genesis?" is a legitimate question. Maybe even the question. I myself would have liked to hear a scholarly explanation of why an educated person should read the Bible. For instance, I'm especially curious about how ignorance of the Bible affects my ability to read the many novels that draw on the Bible.

But the professor didn't get into that. He did make the interesting observation that everyone has an opinion about the Book of Genesis whether they think they do or not (not his words), but he didn't develop that idea, either.

Instead, he transitioned to a lengthy reflection on the fact that so many people take the Bible seriously in a non-English-professor sort of way -- "and that's OK," he said.

But not completely OK, apparently. The reason to read the Book of Genesis, he finally concluded, is to show students that it is possible to talk about contested material in a civil and dispassionate manner, and that is the goal of a college education.

Civil discourse is the goal of a $60K/year Stanford education.

That's going to come as news to parents, most of whom likely think -- if they think of it at all -- that civil discourse is the prerequisite for a college education, not the goal. Minding your manners in class: something a Stanford student should know how to do going in.

Then tonight I came across the following, also on the Stanford website:
What do you think of when you think of the word "grammar"? ... "Usually, our minds go to those unending rules and exceptions, those repetitive drills and worksheets..." (720). This formal grammar is "the deadly kind of grammar," the one that makes us anxious....
So film professors at Appalachian State are curing hate, English professors at Stanford are curing religious conflict, and composition theorists are attending to anxiety about grammar while bludgeoning the rules, drills, and worksheets that would prevent anxiety about grammar developing in the first place.

English as a discipline seems to be gone.


Jean said...

Aaaaaargh. Catherine, you're killing me here. I spend all my time making my kids do things like read books and learn grammar (OK, math too), and this is what they've got to look forward to? What am I going to DO?

I'm aiming them at BYU, it being way more affordable than my own UC alma mater...I hope it turns out OK.

Auntie Ann said...

There are some more-traditional colleges out there. Some even have 4-year Great Books curriculum, if you really want a humanities focus ( ).

VickyS said...

(What is the purpose of college for the diverse people whose presence on campus is so educational for their white peers? Not addressed.)

Omg Catherine you are so funny. . . and so right on. (At the K-12 level, this is addressed by Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit.)

Even a college education steeped in postmodernism and relativism is better than the emptiness left by the demise of the humanities. At least it provided a mental workout.

So, not only do we keep falling farther and farther behind in the “STEM” disciplines despite increasing amounts of money being thrown that direction (and how sick I am of the STEM acronym and all it connotes) but now we are losing our cultural currency and perspective by eliminating the humanities at both the high school level (see Stotsky and her criticism of the ELA common core) and in our colleges and universities. Beware both the air traffic controllers and the diplomats of the future.

AmyP said...

"I think it was, explaining that the purpose of education is to expose 18-year olds to "diversity," thus eliminating "hate.""

Is there some sort of exchange program that will send middle aged college professors to spend a year or two in different parts of the former Yugoslavia? The former Yugoslavia was plenty diverse and they've spent hundreds of years living with each other, and yet that doesn't seem to have made them like each other.

Anonymous said...

I think it was the newest book by Robert Putnam that explored comfort levels between different groups and which found that the more alike, the more comfortable the relationship. I remember the comment that it even held true for rural South Dakota, where diversity means inviting a Swede to a Norwegian picnic.

I also remember reading about the attitudes of freshman and senior white/Asian elite college students toward their black (and possibly Hispanic - can't remember)classmates. The seniors' attitudes were significantly less positive; that blacks were less smart/capable, less motivated/hard-working and had bad attitudes. Of course, blacks having been admitted with significantly lower credentials, they were disproportionately at the bottom of the class.

Allison said...

-I myself would have liked to hear a scholarly explanation for why an educated person should read the Bible.

A strange question, because until the 1960s, no one could possibly have been considered educated who hadn't. Until the marxists took over academia, your question was asking "why should a person who has read the Bible read the Bible?"

A person who is not a Christian should read the Bible because it explains large portions of Western civilization, describing what ideas and principles were and are most important to understanding humanity.

The Bible elucidates, explains, and narrates the core deep questions and conflicts humans face: who are we, collectively and individually; what is our ultimate purpose, our reason for existence, both collectively and individually; what is the nature of man, collectively and individually; what is the nature of pain, loss, and suffering; how can we learn to struggle through it; what is the nature of birth and death, growth and loss, blossoming and decay; what is the purpose and proper role of power; what is the nature of institutions, state, and polity; what are and how do we understand the notions of love, charity, kindness, evil, anger, jealousy, envy. How can we lead a better life; what principles can make life easier; what are duty, obligation, sacrifice, and freedom.

And having provided answers to the above questions, most of our literature, art, philosophy, history, anthropology, and psychology cannot be understood without doing so in light of those answers, either as extensions of those answers or criticisms of them.

If you are a Christian, there are more reasons.