The problem with majoring in the humanities is that you’re getting an education that’s fundamentally pre-professional

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI just finished teaching a class where I made students read the first chapter of Made To Stick, which is a phenomenal book on communicating your ideas. After we discussed it, I told them that they really ought to go out and read it on their own, because reading that book made me aware of a way of communicating that I had never recognized as something that I could and should be able to do. But I also felt compelled to add that nothing they learned from the book would really be very useful to them in their college careers.

That’s because Made To Stick is solely concerned with one thing: “How can I make other people remember the things that I say?”

And that is not something that is of value in college, because the mission of college is to train kids to come up with original things to say. College is not really concerned with disseminating ideas, because its methods of communication are already so efficient and so well-established. Academics communicate using conferences and journals, and they communicate using pre-existing forms and types of language that are fairly well-defined. To a certain extent, a compelling presentation is distrusted, because there’s a suspicion that it’s being used to obscure the trueness of the idea.

Being a good communicator is never useless, but it is much less useful in academic environments than it is in other contexts.

And it made me pretty depressed to think that students are being trained in skills that they won’t need when they leave college, and that they’re not learning the skills that they will need.

When academics talk about the value of an education in the humanities, there’s always an essential falseness to their argument. They argue that the humanities help you lead a good life and understand your place in the universe and become more empathetic and be a better citizen and all that stuff. And maybe those things are true, but the academic has a fundamentally different relationship to the humanities than his student does. As one of my MFA classmates once remarked to me, “I’m expected to be an advocate for the humanities, but, for me, all my humanities education has been in preparation to becoming a professor: my college education in the humanities was, fundamentally, pre-professional.”

For the student, the humanities are an interesting body of knowledge. But for the academic, they’re a job skill.

The academic makes his living doing the things that he is training his students to do. And the education he gives is a pre-professional one: it obviously makes tons of sense to write that fifteen page paper on the treatment of Islam in Moby Dick if you hope to someday make a living by writing fifteen-page papers on X element of Y text.

Almost none of the academic’s students, though, are going to be paid to conduct original thinking in the humanities. And the crisis of the humanities is that the system doesn’t take that into account.

Historically, there were only three kinds of higher education–priestly, technical, and managerial–and they were all pre-professional. For example, if you were a middle-class person  in 19th century Britain, you could’ve gone to Oxford to become a priest, or to some medical college to become a doctor, or to Sandhurst to become a soldier.

To a large extent, these divisions have carried over into the modern day. When you’re in college, you can major in an applied science (engineering or pre-med), or something ‘practical’ (communications, business, economics, etc), or in something more abstract and intellectual (physics, math, history, cultural studies, etc.)

Generally speaking, the applied sciences and the practical majors seem to have pretty clear missions: they try to teach you the actual job skills that you will someday use in your the job that you hope to get once you graduate from college.

Math and the natural sciences have a slightly fuzzier mission in that their aim is to educate you to be a scientist or a mathematician. However, most people who major in Physics are not going to do original work in physics. Most people who major in Math are not going to discover new mathematical theorems. But much of this existential confusion can be ignored because the natural sciences also give you some fairly practical skills. If you majored in math, you can work on Wall Street. If you majored in biology, you can go to med school. And so on.

The real problem comes in with the humanities. There too, the aim is clear: to give their students the tools to extract original interpretations from texts (with the definition of ‘text’ changing depending on the given discipline). The problem is that very few jobs utilize these tools. Being able to draw meaning out of an ambiguous text is really helpful if you’re a scholar or a priest, but it’s not so helpful when you’re trying to make a career in human resources. In most jobs, the texts are just not that ambiguous (or if they are, they should be ignored, because they’re purposefully written in a way that’s vacuous). That’s why so many English majors end up in law school: it’s one of the only profession that requires textual analysis.

So people in the humanities are reduced to arguing that the ability to conduct textual analysis will result in positive side-effects: humanities majors will be more articulate, more empathetic, more aware of their place in the universe.

The problem, though, is that these claims ring false, because the way in which the humanities are taught makes it clear that none of the above are part of its primary aims. If we cared about making our students more articulate, we wouldn’t have them write jargon-filled papers about the tortured interpretation that they’ve coaxed out of Hamlet–instead, we’d make them read Made To Stick, and then we’d force them to find a way to convey (in a clear and engaging and ‘sticky’ fashion) some of the current thinking on Hamlet. If we wanted them to be more aware of their place in the universe, then instead of asking them to figure out, in the abstract, what Plato might’ve meant, we’d ask them to write personal essays on what Plato makes them think about with regards to how they live their own lives. If we wanted to teach them to read and enjoy literature, then we wouldn’t focus (as English classes so often do) on lesser-known or less-traveled parts of the canon (works that it’s easier to write about because fewer academics have picked them over). Instead, we’d make them read Middlemarch and Moby Dick and we’d try to teach them to experience those books as things that are vivid and alive (rather than as corpses that we must dissect using our superior intellects).

It’s not that I don’t think that the humanities are worthwhile. I definitely do. It’s just that I don’t think literary analysis is the only way (or even the best way) for a non-academic to experience the humanities. I’m not one of those people who has any problem with literary analysis. I’ve read plenty of academic writing in the humanities (well, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Delany, mostly) and have found it to be worthwhile. I just don’t think it’s a particularly worthwhile skill for a person who is not going to be writing academic papers about literature.

The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom

coverIn terms of preserving you for posterity, how could any intellectual be more fantastically lucky than to be the subject of a very loving, and very readable novel that also happens to be the apex of a Nobel Prize winner’s output?

I have never read a better Saul Bellow novel than his last, Ravelstein, which basically details the life of philosopher Allan Bloom, who was one of Bellow’s fellow professors at University of Chicago. It’s fantastic, you should read this. The Bloom-character in that novel is an amazing study in contrasts. He’s this very passionate, very gay, and very conservative thinker who’s suddenly become one of the most famous men in America (because of this book).

After reading Ravelstein (four years ago), I decided to read this book. About a year ago, I acquired a copy. Last Sunday, I decided to give away every single book that I wasn’t absolutely sure I was going to read. I figured that if the time ever did come to read The Closing of the American Mind, then I could come by another copy. The very next day, I realized that it was time to read this book, so I bought a copy off Amazon and read it in two days! I basically spent all of Monday reading it.

I was blown away. I’ve never read a polemic that was so concise and forceful and deeply-felt and still-relevant. The closest would probably be The Feminine Mystique. But, despite that book’s many virtues, it’s not particularly well-argued: Friedan’s book is one whose argument you’re either drawn to or not.

Whereas I think that Bloom makes a pretty sound case for its believes. To wit, he thinks that American students (and, by extension, American adults) have lost the ability to live with and within ideas.

He lays the blame at the door of relativism. According to him, almost every student comes to college believing in some form of relativism: the idea that truth is unknowable and that one person’s truth is as good as another person’s. Now, you’re probably tut-tutting me and being like, “Nuh uh, dude. Americans believe in stuff.” But that’s because I’m not Bloom. Go and read the book. He lays it out pretty solidly.

Personally, I am a relativist. I do not believe in absolute morality or in right and wrong on any level, whether it’s the notion that some books are better than others or that some ways of life are better than others. But that does lay me open to some problems. Like, if you’re a relativist, then how do you make decisions?

I mean, that’s not even the problem. The problem is…I do make decisions. I make decisions every day. I decided that one way of life was better (for me) to live than another. I decide that some books are better. I try and impose my decisions on others (by telling them what books are better). Something happens within me all the time, but I am completely inequipped with an intellectual framework for understanding or even thinking about the decisions that I am making.

And that’s what the book is about. Bloom doesn’t quite say that there is such a thing as some stuff being better or more moral than other stuff, but he makes a very impassioned case that relativism is a much better ending point than it is a starting point…that people should at least be exposed to the old truths before they learn that they are lies.

The last third is also a pretty brutal takedown of university education. Something that I wholly agreed with, particularly this part:

The colleges do not have enough to teach their students, not enough to justify keeping them four years, probably not even three years. If the focus is careers, there is hardly one specialty, outside the hardest of the hard natural sciences, which requires more than two years of preparatory training prior to graduate studies. The rest is just wasted time, or a period of ripening until the students are old enough for graduate studies. For many graduate careers, even less is really necessary.

Which is very true. As a place to pass the time and have fun, college is great. As a place to learn things, you’re better off with a library card. College is a place that lacks any kind of mission. It has no idea what it is supposed to be teaching you. People in the humanities say that their subjects teach you how to think. But they’re rarely able to be more specific than that. In what way does analyzing a text teach you how to think? And does it matter what you analyze? Or what the result of your analysis is? Sometimes it seems like the humanities are telling you, “We will teach you how to bullshit convincingly.”

Which is fine, I guess, but it’s of no real use to either you or the world. Unless you learn how extract some kind of truth from the world, then what you’re doing is not thinking. But much of the humanities starts from the assumption that there is no truth to be gotten: there’s merely some sort of free-flowing line of association. Analysis is an activity in and of itself. Outputs are evaluated, if at all, merely on the basis of elegance: not on the basis of truthfulness or utility.

Personally, I learned much more in high school than I did in college, because my high school concentrated on giving me a lot of knowledge. And I’ve learned much more from my own reading since I graduated college, because I am able to hold myself to much higher standards than my university ever did (not that I would’ve welcomed a firmer hand from my university–I just would’ve liked it to be a bit less snooty about what it was really giving us).

P.S. I feel that I haven’t done justice to or accurately described the content of the book. Most of it (maybe 1/2) is a very detailed discussion of the intellectual forebears (primarily Nietzsche and Weber) whose thought led us to this impasse, which additional discussion of others (Descarte, Plato, Locke) who offer us some kind of alternative.