Friday, August 10, 2018

The humanities crisis is real? – A couple of notes

This post hit the humanities blogosphere in late July like Little Boy and Fat Man combined:

What of it?

Two weeks later I offered a pair of tweets:
So, in one story it's sci-biz-tech crushing the humanities & True Culture. Do we need a new narrative: THAT story belongs to an old cultural formation rooted in 19th century binaries. Things have changed & we need a New Story.

Shakespeare is now the New Homer, ancient as the hills. But who’s the New Shakespeare? Or is the question itself a product of that old cultural formation?
My point was that that first story has been around for a long time. I heard it in my undergraduate years in the 1960s and it’s rooted at least in part in anti-science romanticism dating back to the early 19th century. But things have changed. In the 1960s and 70s the kool kids joined rock bands and created communes. In the 90s they were creating high-tech start ups, nor should we forget that Steve Jobs visited an ashram in India before he founded Apple with Steve Wozniak.

So, what’s our new story, one crafted for a world where general media literacy is as important as print literacy, one where movies, video, and electronic games occupy much of the cultural space that had belonged to print before the 20th century.

That’s one thing. Here’s another.

When I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins I took a course in social theory taught by Arthur Stinchcombe in the Sociology Department. That is, this was a social sciences course, not a humanities course. It was one of those courses designed from upper level undergraduates and beginning graduate students.

On the first day of class Stinchcombe asked us to do a bit of theorizing. He reported that a recent study had shown that college students were more likely to shift from non-humanities majors to humanities majors than vice versa (remember, this was back in the mid-1960s, the high point of humanities enrollment in the chart above). Why, he asked us, why?

Some of the graduate students offered up accounts that were clever. But I wasn’t buying it, nor was I saying anything. But after awhile I decided to speak up. I offered the high school students are going to pick a major they know something about. They wouldn’t really know that the humanities is a ‘thing’, but they understand biology and chemistry and engineering or business. So those are the kinds of majors they’re going to declare their freshman year. But once in college they learned that, yes, the humanities exist and you might even be able to get a job. And so, when they get a chance to change majors, they change into humanities.

That, it turned out, was what the study had found.

When students switch majors these days, what’s the switch? Not, presumably, to the humanities.

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