The Death of the Humanities?

sunupordownBy Monica F. Cohen

I spent much of the summer exchanging links with friends to articles documenting the death of the humanities in American institutions of higher education. The confluence of forces seemed apocalyptically confounding: public universities requiring higher tuition for humanities courses; careerism infiltrating curricula; parents worried about tuition that demand rationalization in terms of investment and returns; MOOC’s and short-term instructors substituting for the sustained attention of a traditional teaching faculty; the possible decline in the number of English majors and worries about employability; lap-tops in classrooms whereby today’s admirably multi-tasking student can seem to fully participate in class discussion while simultaneously shopping for shoes on Zappos and making social plans on Facebook; and, finally, wannabe exercises in digital humanities whereby scholarly inquiry into the things that matter achieves value only through a patina of social-science authority. Now that The New York Times has made it official with an article entitled “As Interest in the Humanities Fade, Universities Worry,” it feels on some days like just a matter of time before the academic world giving prominent place to humanities study would be a distant memory.

What greeted me on the first day of fall classes this year, however, was something entirely different. When I walked into my Nineteenth-century Novel class, I found nothing like what my greatest apprehensions led me to anticipate. Whereas I expected thirty students, more than seventy poured in. Whereas I expected laptops, only four brought them and only two later asked to use them (and since that day no one seems to bring them out). Whereas I expected twelve or so students to actively participate while the rest avoided eye contact, nearly everyone raised a hand at some point. Whereas I expected the rustle of notebooks closing and books returning to bags five minutes before the official end of class, everyone stayed riveted until I gave the signal that we were finished, seven minutes later than we were scheduled to end. (That might not seem like a long time, but my previous experience suggests that college students live a frenzied, back-to-back life of dashing with a bagel and cup of coffee from one place to the next. Rarely do students seem to have the time to linger after class.) They just want to talk about the books: about Balzac’s impossibly long sentences, about Kant and moral choice, about failure and maturity, about the possibilities of agency in an urban mob, about Breaking Bad and Dickens.

I’m not a star professor. I’m not even a tenure-track professor. There’s no buzz about my course and there’s not much likelihood that I can really help a student climb a professional ladder other than making sure their work is really compelling. And I teach at a competitive school where students think about such things. But my students seem to come to class as if discussing these books is the most important event of their day. They want to talk so much that they gather around the front of the classroom when our designated time is over and email me lengthy comments after the next class has dislodged us. For the first time, I had to set up an electronic discussion board because I can never call on the number of hands that are up. And sometimes I feel my role is just to orchestrate: they respond to each other with an alacrity and respect I cannot really remember being the norm when I was in college.

Maybe the numbers of English majors are really going down –or maybe just recovering from an irregular rise as Nate Silver demonstrated. But maybe that’s the wrong question to ask about the state of the humanities.  Instead of statistics, maybe we need anecdotes. I remain awed by the energy in my classroom. And most of my colleagues have said the same. (An example: 80 students signed up for a lecture course on The Canterbury Tales!) Students come to the study of books, even today, with a sense that the endeavor is crucially important. They are interested in a liberal education in the broadest sense of the term.

Some of my best students are English majors, but many of them are not. One is in the engineering program. One is majoring in environmental studies. One is pre-med. Their love for reading and writing and talking about books is undiminished by their very pragmatic career plans, or their very real worries about tuition. Or the very serious concerns of parents and administrators who see one thing, the irrelevance and decline of the humanities, while students and professors experience something else. These students are looking for something genuine, real and engaging—and they are finding it.

The long-term prospects for humanities research may lie in applying Big Data to the study of books (I’m dubious) or (perhaps more promisingly) in reaching out to other growing fields—there’s lots of fascinating crossover work with medical humanities going on, and many interesting engagements with Environmental studies.   The long-term prospects for humanities study at the college level, however, may lie in remembering that career preparation is only one of the many missions American colleges have organized themselves around. Literature classes continue to speak, and to speak powerfully, to students of all fields. Whether it’s despite or because of warnings from parents, hyperbole in the press, or a presumed sense of the impracticality of talking and thinking about ideas and books, I am reminded every day in my own experience  and by that of my colleagues that the appetite of students for reading, writing, and discussing novels, stories, philosophy and poems remains unabated, and it’s that which might well guarantee the well being of the humanities at large.  There seems to be a new vitality in today’s humanities classroom. I don’t entirely know how to explain it, but perhaps the new world it heralds might still be an exciting and rewarding place .

Monica F. Cohen teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Barnard College.

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