There is a (quite good, and worth reading) New Yorker story about the decline of the humanities at universities, though this one focuses on the English major specifically. It brings up some very good points about how university educations have changed over time, but it doesn’t quite manage to wrap things together at the end. I have some thoughts.
For one, I noticed a lot of the social media reactions reactions are focusing on a Harvard professor lamenting her students can barely comprehend The Scarlet Letter:
“Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”
And I get it: we all had to suffer through that book in school, and it’s actually quite difficult to read given its florid syntax. But, it’s also fine to acknowledge that Nathanial Hawthorne is bad – ironically, in one of my more favorite examples, just by reading someone like Trollope praise him. The contrast between Trollope’s clear prose and Hawthorne’s decidedly not clear prose is night and day.
But I think this also points to something else: the myth of the brilliant Ivy League student. I should be clear: most students in the Ivies are very smart… but so are most students at most universities. Ivy League schools are mostly legacy students (a 2019 study found 43% of Harvard undergraduates are legacy admissions, meaning they have a family member who either works at or graduated from the school).
Harvard is particularly brazen about this, considering their “selective” admissions policy, but we should be clear: when we talk about this stuff we aren’t really talking about exceptional students, but rather exceptional faculty – because most faculty at Ivy Leagues are extremely good. And if an assumedly exceptional professor at Harvard is struggling to teach a cornerstone of the American literary cannon, it might mean something bigger is going on.
I encounter students who struggle to comprehend and compose sentences all the time — Colorado’s public education system is unforgivably bad — but that doesn’t mean it is the students’ fault. They are being failed by a political system that has decided to care more about tax cuts than educating their kids. To the point here, it does not explain why a field is dying. Students generally want to learn the classes they take, you know? The few who don’t, fail, and they deal with it.
In its reporting, the New Yorker visits all the familiar old bugaboos — screen time, social media, etc. — and forgets to mention that adults whine about kids not reading good for literally centuries. Robert Russel whined in 1695 that “lewd and wicked Children” were “heard to curse and swear” instead of focusing on learning and respecting their parents. This is an OLD genre, blaming kids for adult anxieties.
In his 1695 book, A Little Book for Children and Youth: Being Good Counsel and Instructions for Your Children, Earnestly Exhorting Them to Resist the Temptation of the Devil, Robert Russel complained:
“I find by sad Experience how the Towns and Streets are filled with lewd wicked Children, and many Children as they have played about the Streets have been heard to curse and swear and call one another Nick-names, and it would grieve ones Heart to hear what bawdy and filthy Communications proceeds from the Mouths of such…
My personal favorite is the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner, who fretted in the 16th century that the invention of the printing press had created a “confusing and harmful abundance of books” would fill the heads of the masses with dangerous ideas they couldn’t handle. But this is universal. Socrates fretted the written word represented the destruction of memory and storytelling. In 1859 Scientific American worried a “pernicious excitement” about chess “is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while it affords no benefit whatever to the body.” Hell, even modern day psychologists claim emails lower IQ more than pot.
I hate email as much as the next person, but they aren’t worse than pot, whose harms are ridiculously overstated anyway, and they certainly don’t affect IQ, which is fake and usually only invoked to justify racism.
Anyway! The New Yorker soft pedals a lot of structural problems in the humanities, like pedagogy. A lot of humanities writing is borderline gibberish, and a lot of English instruction I’ve had has been dreadful – when I have revisited books I resented reading in school because of endless discussions of “what does the spear represent in Lord of the Flies” style discussions, I have realized I didn’t hate literature, but rather how it is taught. I adore reading! That adoration just isn’t cultivated in the way we teach reading, and a new podcast that came out last year, Sold A Story, investigates that in a fairly harrowing way. But, while visiting these sorts of ideas, the writer lets slip that he went to Harvard. Despite opening the piece talking about ASU, a wonderful school, he focuses on the minutae of elites at an elite school, like so many mainstream media seemingly unable to parse higher ed outside the Ivies.
I am constantly struck by the limited horizon of elite journalists at New York outlets. They seem just, unable to leave the Northeast, unable to look beyond the Ivies, and when they do they focus on exceptional cases (ASU) and not typical ones (Iowa State, as a random example). It takes 1500 words for there to be a quote from a student noting that everyone makes fun of the field, that it isn’t valued by industry, etc. These are structural issues, not field issues! English Lit cannot change the fact that English scholarship is derided, that our culture more broadly does not value literary knowledge, that history has been aggressively instrumentalized by fascists, and the entire federal government throws money at STEM but starves philosophy. It shouldn’t be a huge mystery why the field is in decline: it’s being assaulted on every side!
I am in an applied field when it comes to undergrads (academic research into strategic communication examines the foundations of how publics form and negotiate power, but undergrads learn how to write press releases). I get the tension between balancing some sort of industry need against the bigger and more interesting questions a field can pose. But I suspect a lot of literature departments haven’t really sat with that tension. What can they do to make it clearer to hiring departments that their students are valuable to a range of organizations? Many people I meet in this field recoil against such thinking, but it is what drives student thinking on what to major in, something this piece captures really well.
But, the elite focus on Harvard elides something important: public money. In Colorado, for example, education budgets are relentlessly slashed (primary schools are only open 4 days a week in most counties), while the public universities are so starved of money they really aren’t all that “public” anymore. In 2018, a bill forced university departments to publish a “return on investment” statement stipulating how much each major can expect to earn after graduating, while keeping tuition even across the board. Functionally, this law instructed students not to major in anything non-STEM or non-industry focused because it would result in lower salaries. The legislature did this to help students find jobs to pay off the loans the legislature forced them to take by defunding the university. This has profound consequences for the students, many of whom are too low-income to afford to attend the “public” university.
When you cut off public funding — and public universities are where most people who don’t write for elite New York media outlets will encounter higher ed, by several exponents — you push research toward grant-funded applied work (Silicon Valley and defense money, mostly) and student loans, which dramatically raises the opportunity cost of majoring in something interesting, enriching, or fulfilling. Add in industry dismissing this education and it’s foregone. Like, not to overstate this but the entirety of society suffers when you kneecap education like that.
There is a brief discussion of this dynamic in the piece, and the promotion of ASU as a model has some merit. But it is also an outlier — most public universities cannot just scale into multibillion dollar online enterprises. That just isn’t a realistic solution. Some fields, like mine, have been carved away from humanities-based writing and history fields in order to make them more appealing and marketable outside the academy. That might be one way to look at fixing this crisis, which is explored briefly in the piece.
There are a host of reasons driving this decline, but a lot of them really are rooted in our culture’s increasing disdain for learning for its own sake. That’s death for literature. It’s sad. But it’s not everything – the disdain is not only about the way English lit is taught, it is disdain for learning generally. Frustratingly, the New Yorker just does not bring this up.
There is a growing billionaire-funded anti-college industry brewing since the 1990s. The Chronicle of Higher Education just showed how pernicious that industry can be: they covered a survey run by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that asked about DEI statements. This is an old topic – the 1994 film PCU lampooned its excesses during the last moral panic about political correctness – but FIRE specifically is on a quest to end the “scourge” of asking employees to not discriminate against minorities. But here’s the thing: FIRE is promoting model legislation to outlaw such statements while the Chronicle only quotes the FIRE researcher fretting about how free speech at universities is under assault because of diversity initiatives. The group is making flowery statements about expression while working with right wing media and republican legislators to outlaw speech. The Chronicle does not mention this, and it is how this industry works – laundering speech oppression through otherwise respectable media.
This is, of course, on top of things like Professor Watchlist, which incentivize students to rat out their professors to right wing provocateurs over ideological sins, plus groups like TPUSA that pay students to shout anti-learning slogans about things like… English literature, whose study they disdain. This is an industry funded by billionaires like the Kochs, Mercers, etc., and has no countervailing funding on the left. It is a dedicated hate industry aimed at all social inquiry in universities, and it garners mostly silence from the media when they wonder why social studies in universities are dying.
Put more sharply: every single news story that covers university affairs but does not grapple with the ways industry has organized itself to destroy university education, from cutting funding to not hiring graduates to pressure groups like FIRE going on a jihad against DEI or lamenting free speech for conservatives or whatever, is fundamentally failing its moral and ethical duty to the public. Koch money is absolutely poisonous in higher education – the organization demands the right to hire or fire professors and to manipulate curriculum in return for a few million dollars – but you’d never know that reading these pieces.
Students, on the other hand, do know it. They aren’t dumb, they can read and they can see where the money financing the new buildings on campus is coming from. It isn’t the state government, but rather the billionaires who won’t fire English majors. The jihad against higher education is invisible to the hapless journalists who cover it, and it is alarming.
So why is the English major dying? I’m frankly surprised it isn’t dying faster – and I say that loving English lit and hating that this is the case. While the field – and I include humanities more broadly in this – has done a poor job adjusting its focus to “make the case” outside the Ivory Tower, that isn’t what’s killing it off. Our culture and politics have changed to devalue English literature instruction, and I don’t mean because of woke mobs – rather, the unfathomably wealthy people who run the economy have decided people who study reading and writing are not as valuable as people who study math or coding; they are also funding non-profits to function as hate groups aimed squarely at liberal arts education.
What rational student would see this happening and think, yes, I want do this? The problem isn’t students – my ongoing refrain whenever someone wants to blame them for the challenges facing higher education – it is far bigger than that, in the uncomfortable questions about money and power that no one in elite media discourses wants to talk about.