Sad but true: The humanities in steady decline
by Judy Elliott
July 07, 2013 12:00 AM | 2464 views | 8 8 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Earlier this month, once the handwriting was on the wall, we learned most college students no longer consider the humanities a viable course of study.

A blue-ribbon committee, appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, published the results of a two-year study, concluding the tree of knowledge is leaning toward degrees in fields of technology, the sciences and business, majors culminating in jobs.

Twenty years ago, college freshmen were beginning their Renaissance journeys, bending over heavy tomes of literature and languages, of history, on the path to liberal arts degrees. Today, their number has dropped like a stone.

A writer/professor published these numbers recently. At Pomona College, in classes of over 15,000 students, 16 graduated as English majors. The number of college seniors majoring in English literature at Yale dropped from 165 in l991 to 62 in 2012.

Yet we know those in management positions in finance often end their days with a headache and a plea to: “Send me someone who can write!”

My friend Ben Ladner, always the smartest guy in the room, is the former president of The National Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Sciences and a past president of American University in Washington, D.C.

He has given speeches all over the world on the tools and values of education, on the gifts of being grounded by a life enriched through art and literature. I asked him to weigh in on the fate of the humanities.

“Letting the humanities slide into irrelevance is not an abstract curriculum issue,”

Ben wrote. “It is taking the axe to the roots of our personal and national identity.” [Studying the humanities] “is profoundly communal and civic, which is why requiring a grounding in the humanities for each generation is so vital.”

Ben added, “I learned long ago, and am still learning, how conversation, writings, artistic creations and insights and expressions of love and friendship summon me, not just to respond, but to come to myself, anew. That, in a word, is what the humanities are all about.”

He believes it is a mistake to define our children’s choices by asking them to choose between “the supposedly intellectually and economically ‘soft’ humanities versus the ‘hard’ sciences and technology.”

As a former professor of philosophy and religion with a Ph.D. from Duke, Ben Ladner’s background in the liberal arts led him to the decision-making and visionary role of president of a large university, a place educating students from around the world.

Ben can read a spread sheet, quote poetry and talk to a crowd with the fervor of a fund-raiser or the empathy of a professor whom you would trust with your freshman college student leaving home.

The same writing professor we met at the beginning of this column, the one with the dire statistics on the humanities, has more to say on liberal arts majors like Ladner, whose successes are, in part, bound to writing and speaking through “a rational grace and energy in a conversation with the world around [them.]”

“No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy,” Verlyn Klinkenborg, the professor, writes, “but everyone who possesses it, knows it is a rare and precious inheritance.”

Ben ended his note to me by writing of “the longing to embrace the fullest possibilities of ourselves.” His words reminded me of the captains of industry who confess they feel separated from the lives they intended to live.

Granted, there is the excitement of discovery bound to research and the puzzle-solving satisfaction of mastering a computer program, but what happens when we ignore the creative center in ourselves by narrowing our interests, excluding the arts and the written word, disconnected from both?

The last words are Ben’s. “Embedded in the contours of the humanities is the gift of the freedom to be who we are. [We] must speak or write to find out if what we have to say is worth hearing.” Point taken!

Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Virginia Dajani
July 09, 2013
For Judy Elliott

Dear Ms. Elliott:

The American Academy has not set up any 2-year study to my knowledge. Perhaps you meant the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the two organizations are often misidentified in the press.

Virginia Dajani

Executive Director

American Academy of Arts and Letters
Your Out of Touch
July 08, 2013
"Ben can read a spread sheet,..."

Good for him, but can he read a spreadsheet?

The lameness of this article does a great job in pointing out how worthless a liberal arts degree can be. The author seems out of touch with facts, lacks critical thought, and apparently doesn't understand the basics of the world around her.
July 07, 2013
As Pomona College graduates fewer than 400 students annually, the numbers cited above appear to be nonsense.
El Guapo
July 07, 2013
Thank you, Ms. Elliott, for your column about a very important, and yes, sad topic. However, you do not mention the most salient reason for the decline of humanities, namely that humanities faculties have chosen to make their disciplines irrelevant. English and other humanities departments long ago abandoned any pretense of academic rigor (average grades are now A in many institutions), have created hostile environments for those with differing viewpoints (resulting in many students quickly learning to parrot the instructor rather than steep themselves in critical thinking about the subjects), and have immersed themselves in scholarship so esoteric and valueless to others that almost no one reads their papers, even others in their own fields.

I am a science professor. I, too, would love it if my students could write well. (Often, writing is what keeps students who have mastered organic chemistry, genetics and differential equations out of medical school or doctoral programs). But my students say that their composition and literature courses teach them nothing (and their writing and critical thinking skills back up their opinions). They are not remotely challenged to think critically in their liberal arts courses. They are not assigned term papers, great books, or any of the other hallmarks of what were once thought necessary components of a rigorous liberal arts education.

Is it any wonder having figured out that humanities courses are useless, that students choose more professionally oriented majors? The death of the humanities is a suicide. And like most suicides, it leaves the survivors much worse off.
July 07, 2013
"At Pomona College, in classes of over 15,000 students, 16 graduated as English majors."

- must be pretty big classrooms to hold 15k students

- or perhaps by "classes" you meant annual graduating classes? Interesting, because Pomona only has 1,600 students total - so a graduating class would probably be somewhere around 400 students

What relevance to anything does Pomona college have - other than the fact that this writer is too lazy too look up more meaningful macro statistics.

Judy is perhaps the laziest writer I have ever read. She continually writes with errors in the use of data, doesn't proof-read, etc. etc.

Can someone, anyone, list what award this "award-winning columnist" has won? It must not be anything more than a pie-eating contest if it isn't worth listing.
July 08, 2013

It appears your "humanities" are quite resentful of Ms Elliot. I should have much preferred to read your disagreement with her statements than your argumentum ad hominem.
July 08, 2013
Please answer:

- What award has she won?

- Where/how did she come up with the nonsense of 15k students?

- What relevance is Ben and Pomona?

Her writing is drivel.
*We welcome your comments on the stories and issues of the day and seek to provide a forum for the community to voice opinions. All comments are subject to moderator approval before being made visible on the website but are not edited. The use of profanity, obscene and vulgar language, hate speech, and racial slurs is strictly prohibited. Advertisements, promotions, and spam will also be rejected. Please read our terms of service for full guides