Crises of the Humanities Officially Arrives

Stanley Fish’s post on the New York Times’ Opinionator blog yesterday documents the inexorable decline of the humanities in higher education and the evolution of administrators who themselves are indifferent to higher learning. (The State University of New York at Albany announced that they were eliminating their French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs.)

Indifferent to higher learning

Sometimes when I’m reading or going over notes I’ve made I encounter ideas that complement one other. This happened over the weekend as I was dipping into Michel de Montaigne’s (1533-1592) Essays, Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve: A Critque of Disenlightenment (1989), and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1991).

The essayist Michel de Montaigne said it simply: “It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better.”

Jacques Barzun, who was born in 1907 and is living still, has had an unusually long career in higher education and possesses an unmatched perspective on the changes in higher education, their origins, and their implications. After decrying the loss of any institutional memory of the need for a rigorous and sustained humanistic education—but not without explaining what lay behind this amnesia—Barzun looks at a talk given by Woodrow Wilson in 1910 to the Association of American Universities on “The Importance of the Arts Course as Distinct from the Professional and Semi-professional Courses.” Wilson had been president of Princeton University from 1902-1910 and saw the self-interest of specialized training crowding out the values created by a solid foundation in the humanities. This, he thought, was “the intellectual as well as the economic danger of our times.” “An intellectual danger,” Barzun writes, “because the merely trained individual is a tool and not a mind; an economic danger, because society needs minds and not merely tools.” Wilson feared that specialization would so immerse a man in the narrowness of his one special interest that he would eventually become unable to understand his country and the age in which he lived.

Christopher Lasch, writing eighty-one years after Wilson’s speech, thought that “[t]he bureaucratization of the business career… made the acquisition of educational credentials essential to a business or professional career and thus created in large numbers a new kind of student, utterly indifferent to higher learning but forced to undergo it for purely economic reasons.” Wilson’s fear that people might become unable to understand their societies over time was rendered both fulfilled and quaint by a new reality: many in college were simply resistant from the start of their academic careers to learning anything that they couldn’t see to be of immediate financial benefit.

Perhaps I should repeat Montaigne's warning: “It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better.”