Literature

Yet another Op-Ed. on the crisis in the humanities

Since this blog has spent so much time discussing the crisis in the humanities, I thought it might be helpful to excerpt the latest New York Times Op-Ed. assessing the crisis. It’s adapted from David Lehman’s Foreword to “Best American Poetry 2014”:

[M]ore than ever the humanities today stand in need of defense. These are hard times for the study of ideas. . . .

The cornerstones of the humanities, English and history, have taken a beating. At Yale, English was the most popular major in 1972-73. It did not make the top five in 2012-13. Harvard has issued a report. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanford’s Russell A. Berman said the report suggests that “the marginalization of the great works of the erstwhile canon has impoverished the humanities.” But he notes, too, that it stopped short of calling for a great-books list of required readings. My heart sinks when I arrive at a paragraph in which the topic sentence is “Clearly majoring in the humanities has long been an anomaly for American undergraduates.” Or is such a sentence — constructed as if to sound value-neutral and judgment-free in the proper scientific manner — part of the problem? The ability of an educated populace to read critically, to write clearly, to think coherently and to retain knowledge — even the ability to grasp the basic rules of grammar and diction — seems to be declining at a pace consonant with the rise of the Internet search engine and the autocorrect function in computer programs.

Not merely the cost but the value of a liberal arts education has come into doubt. The humanists find themselves in a bind. “The folly of studying, say, English Lit has become something of an Internet cliché — the stuff of sneering ‘Worst Majors’ listicles that seem always to be sponsored by personal-finance websites,” Thomas Frank writes in Harper’s. To combat the new philistinism, we can fall back on the old arguments. “The study of literature has traditionally been felt to have a unique effectiveness in opening the mind and illuminating it, in purging the mind of prejudices and received ideas, in making the mind free and active,” Lionel Trilling wrote at the time of the Leavis-Snow dust-up.

It is, however, vastly more difficult to mount such a defense after three or more decades of fierce assault on canons of judgment, the idea of greatness, the related idea of genius and the whole vast cavalcade of Western civilization.

For a perceptive insider’s account of what it feels like to watch the humanities fall apart over the last decade or two, I continue to recommend these classic posts from The Kugelmass Episodes.

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