Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cri de coeur ...

... Sorry.

The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

And who can really blame them? If humanists themselves could not even agree on the basic value, structure, and content of a liberal arts education — if some saw the tradition of Western civilization as one of oppression and tyranny, while others defended and validated it; if some argued that a humanistic education ought to be devoted to the voices of those previously excluded from "civilized" discussion, such as people of color and women, while others argued that such changes constituted a betrayal of the liberal arts — is it any wonder that students and their families began turning away from the humanities?


  1. While this perspective on the humanities is true—I was in grad school in the 80s, too, so I saw this same thing happening—it must also be said that this was a time when education was turning ever more towards "pragmatic" ends, which at the time meant focusing on "practical" skills. Which is where education has gone now, almost completely, where "professional" degrees get a lot more respect than "useless" degrees in the humanities. Well, maybe that's really how it is.

    The article makes the point about "relevance" which is part and parcel of this attitude. It could go farther with that context, though, which frankly could be laid at the feet of politics at the time, such as education policies, etc. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

  2. I think it all comes down to the erasure of the distinction between training and education. Education is formative. It has to do being. Training is instrumental. It has to do with doing. The one makes you human. The other makes you a living.

  3. I agree, with the caveat that I think this erasure you mention is a cultural phenomenon not only limited to education. There has always been a tension in American culture between idealism and pragmatism. Sometimes that shows up as ideological arguments ABOUT practical life, and what role education plays. The ideology of "relevance" in education is itself an erasure of the distinction between skills training and what used to be called a liberal education. (I note, somewhat cynically, that the 80s were also the era in which "liberal" started to become used as a curse word. In truth I believe all of this to be connected.)

    The best professors I ever had were those who forced me to go out and teach myself. They taught me how to learn, not just how to perform.

    I had one course in bibliography in grad school that required me to learn how to use the library as a research tool, on many levels. That was one of the toughest courses I ever took, but the skills it gave me means that I can walk into any library, anywhere, and with a little patience find anything I need.

  4. Interesting. The best course I had in grad school was a course i methodology.