Monday, January 19, 2009

The Last Professor, or, What Are the Humanities Good For?

Yesterday, Stanley Fish wrote an interesting blog post reviewing a book that's main premise was that that collegiate humanities are dying in favor of more practical and marketable disciplines. In an iconoclastic twist, though, the author of the book does not decry this trend, but simply speaks of its inevitability as universities rightly become more pragmatically career-focused. Gone are the days where "healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting." Today, universities focus on career preparation.

No one with use of their senses disputes the factual accuracy of this trend, so the only question left is whether the trend is desirable. Should schools focus on personal cultivation or career preparation? Should the proper end of a university education achieve well-roundedness or a marketable skill? (As a high-school teacher, I do not limit the question simply to higher education, but also to K-12 education at large.)

In all honesty, I am of mixed opinion on this score. In the end, though, I think the situation must be left up to the market and individual consensus. Put simply, education should do what individuals who pay for it want it to do, and what will see the best 'return' (whether social or economic) on its investment.

Per the author of the book which Fish reviews, I think the public has largely spoken as to what it wants to see from university education. Humanities departments are declining and fewer students are choosing humanities-based majors (largely because they are realizing that there are few jobs for philosophers and literature majors). None of the ten most popular majors (as measured by CNN) are "humanities disciplines," but more employable areas like biology, education, and marketing.

While it can always be debated as to whether this trend is desirable, the question this begs is: "Desirable to whom?" Since universities must compete for funding from prospective students and businesses (who can "shop around" for where to spend their money), universities must cater to the desires of those in a position to give them money. Both of these groups of consumers have decided that focusing on employability and creating graduates that can get good jobs provides a better return on their investment than would focusing on creating "well rounded" students who can appraise poetry as well as business finances.

So, in a market economy, where the universities must cater towards the desires of willing consumers, whether the decline of the humanities is desirable to professors, academics, social theorists, or anyone not a consumer is somewhat irrelevant. As long as universities offer a service to paying customers, they must cater first-and-foremost to those customers' expectations.

A different story exists, of course, with regard to K-12 education, which does not function primarily in the market model. Here, education is the domain of the state and, while one can choose to pay for private education, the majority of students receive "free" education at tax-payer expense. Thus, the tax-payers and their representatives are the ones who decide what schools should do.

I have no statistics on this point, but recall hearing of several surveys which suggest that taxpayers expect schools to raise citizens first, and potential workers second. This makes sense because the historic rationale for public education seems always to have been that informed citizens capable of participating in civic activities need to be taught the art of thinking and appropriate mores (this at least, according to founders like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington). This is also evidenced by the relatively modern additions of subjects like math and science into the curricula, compared with subjects like civics and literature.

As a high school teacher, however, I think that the goals of producing "well rounded" students as well as future workers are not mutually exclusive. It is true that over-focus on one can only be done at the expense of the other, but there is no reason these cannot be done simultaneously as well as in complimentary ways.

In order to see this, though, we have to give up on any idea that there is any single purpose to education. Different subjects have different purposes; while algebra and technology education may prepare students to enter the workforce, literature and civics prepare students to be good citizens and people. I do not see any reason why these subjects cannot have different purposes yet coexist peacefully (and the only people who seem to think they can't are committed partisans like scientists and humanities professors).

Producing "well rounded" citizens as well as future members of the workforce not only can, but should, be done conjointly in K-12 education. While colleges can afford to be more specialized than K-12 - and thus more narrowly focus the scope of its curricula, K-12 education must retain a broad focus. As it educates everyone, including the many students who will not go on to college, it must raise both whole individuals and well-prepared workers. For students not going on to college, it is equally unjust to raise good, but unemployable, citizens as to raise good, but not "well rounded," workers. Thus, I cannot see the logic in any suggestion that the "main goal" of K-12 education be in one of these areas at the neglect of the other. Not only can K-12 education focus on both "well roundedness" and employ ability without conflict, but they should continue to do so.

As dodgy as my answer may seem, I simply don't think that the "liberal arts v. college prep" question has any good final answer, other than to say that it is continuously up to the "consumers" to decide and redecide the question. At the university level, this is easy to do because it fits the market model and, as such, must compete for business by offering what customers want. K-12 is stickier because schools do not directly compete with other schools for money, but the question can be answered by parents telling the school system what they want to see (as long as policy-makers care enough to listen).

As a lover of the humanities, I am very sad that I have to agree with the author of the book Stanley Fish reviews: whether or not we like it, the humanities are gradually dying at the collegiate level. I am comforted, though, by the belief that those who love the humanities will find a way to keep them alive without the help of universities. I know I will.

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