I’m not just puffing up my own degree when I say that I found my study of literature to be much more broadly relevant training than mere communication and empathy.
Done correctly, literary analysis can be practice for understanding the universe: Given a limited amount of information, one must determine the appropriate criteria for understanding the creation and separate evidence from noise, making the case for each step along the way. Of course, a literary critic must go on to master any technical knowledge required to apply this skill set to some other subject, be it theology, physics, or politics, but a specialist in other subjects must do the same in reverse (and often won’t recognize that need).
I’m therefore sorry, but not surprised, to read Alex Berezow’s report on dramatic declines in study of the humanities:
The humanities are in big trouble. That’s the conclusion drawn by Benjamin Schmidt, an Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University. He has the data to back it up.
In his analysis, Dr. Schmidt depicts several graphs, all of which show a fairly striking trend: Students are rejecting the humanities. The most striking graph, which includes data for English, Languages, History, and Philosophy, shows that the number of college degrees in these fields awarded as a percentage of all college degrees fell from roughly 7.5% in the 2000s to under 5% today.
Reviewing the included charts, it appears that the only two exceptions are communications and cultural, ethnic, and gender studies. The first is broad, but with the feel of practicality (especially in a world of information technology driven to manipulate people). The second is really more the development of an ideology and reinforcement of emotion.
Berezow offers three interrelated explanations, which I’d rephrase as follows:
- Our society has a general sense that the humanities are not serious disciplines.
- The research coming from the humanities reads like a species of parody.
- The humanities have been absorbed almost entirely by a particular proselytizing ideology associated with a single political party.
And so, students who are interested in learning and being tested on knowledge and analysis, rather than affirmed in their beliefs and emotions, are leaving the humanities. That’s a problem because, even with declining numbers, we’re training vast numbers of young adults to feel emotionally entitled and to manipulate others, even as everybody else has less experience framing their responses in the way I described at the outset of this post.