As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry (NYT)

By TAMAR LEWIN
Published: October 30, 2013

STANFORD, Calif. — On Stanford University’s sprawling campus, where a long palm-lined drive leads to manicured quads, humanities professors produce highly regarded scholarship on Renaissance French literature and the philosophy of language.

They have generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is students: Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.

With Stanford’s reputation in technology, it is no wonder that computer science is the university’s most popular major, and that there are no longer any humanities programs among the top five. But with the recession having helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation, administrators are concerned.

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The concern that the humanities are being eclipsed by science goes far beyond Stanford.

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Some professors flinch when they hear colleagues talking about the need to prepare students for jobs.

“I think that’s conceding too quickly,” said Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

His university had 394 English majors last year, down from 501 when he arrived in 1984, but Professor Edmundson said he does not fret about the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.”

But for students worrying about their own future, Shakespeare can seem an obstacle to getting on with their lives.

“Students who are anxious about finishing their degree, and avoiding debt, sometimes see the breadth requirements as getting in their way,” said Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.

NB, then, the very end of the article: “‘We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors,’ he said.”

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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