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An Interview with Diana Sheets: The Crisis in the Humanities: Why Today’s Educational and Cultural Experts Can’t and Won’t Resolve the Failings of the Liberal Arts

Jul 19, 2013 by

diane sheets

The problem is, that “good” person who graduated with a humanities degrees has no historical understanding that would inform her or his concept of American identity.

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

 

1) Diana, you recently had an essay published in a nationally recognized paper. Why did you decide to address the decline and fall of interest in the humanities?

My opinion essay “The Crisis in the Humanities: Why Today’s Educational and Cultural Experts Can’t and Won’t Resolve the Failings of the Liberal Arts” was published in the Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-diana-e-sheets/the-crisis-in-the-humanit_b_3588171.html.

It was written in response to two studies on the declining enrollment of college undergraduates in the humanities. The first was “The Heart of the Matter”, http://www.humanitiescommission.org/_pdf/HSS_Report.pdf, a report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the behest of members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. This study was undertaken by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, a star-studded collection of academics, members of learned societies, business leaders, participants from governmental agencies, leaders of charitable trusts, as well as notable cultural experts.

The second was “Mapping the Future”, http://artsandhumanities.fas.harvard.edu/files/humanities/files/mapping_the_future_31_may_2013.pdf, published by Harvard and based on the findings of a committee of scholars within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. According to this report, undergraduate degrees in the humanities at four-year institutions fell from 14 percent in 1966 to just 7 percent in 2010. The study sought to analyze the factors responsible and how to reverse the trend.

Both reports failed to diagnose the root cause of the decline in undergraduate degrees in the humanities and, by implication, why the enrollments will continue to fall. Having jettisoned the intellectual foundation to Western Civilization, which fostered our industrial and cultural development, these disciplines now focus on what I refer to as the “Politics of Virtue”, intent on exposing social injustices incurred by disenfranchised groups generally classified according to three categories: race, class, and gender. Because we no longer have a shared cultural framework with which to forge a universal experience, American Exceptionalism has become synonymous with colonial tyranny. What has taken the place of Western Civilization? A sanctimonious belief on the part of students in the humanities that translates on the personal level to “I’m a good person”; “I have a low carbon footprint”; “I believe in social justice”, and “I embrace our global diversity”.

The problem is, that “good” person who graduated with a humanities degrees has no historical understanding that would inform her or his concept of American identity. Nor does this individual possess the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that would have been acquired had she or he been properly educated in what I refer to as the classical humanistic disciplines that can be traced back to ancient Greece and based on the principles of the [European] Enlightenment. Simply put, Jane or Johnny can’t read or write or do math. She or he hasn’t any training or skills that would be indispensable to business. So, in our globalized and highly competitive job market, a humanities degree has become useless.

2) In this age of technology, computers and the like, we certainly need to understand the need to be human and to address the human condition. But whose chore is it to encourage the study of great art, great literature, and great music?

Chore? It’s a duty and a calling. It necessitates a passionate curiosity about who we were and what we are becoming that I deem essential for survival. Are we just dumb beasts? Must we live each moment in a state of perpetual surprise crushed by each glancing blow? Or do we understand our historical foundations, develop our abilities, and embrace our cultural heritage as a prelude to the next great phase of discovery? Life is a struggle. Understanding the building blocks of our civilization not only gives us joy and meaning, it empowers us.

Allan Bloom, in his masterful study “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students” (1987), put it this way: “Culture means a war against chaos and a war against other cultures. The very idea of culture carries with it a value: man needs culture and must do what is necessary to create and maintain cultures. There is no place for a theoretical man to stand. To live, to have any inner substance, a man must have values, must be committed, or engagé”.

3) When did this decline and fall of the “spirit of inquiry”, if you will, begin? Is there a point where the decline began?

The short answer to your question is that by the late 1960s when we abandoned our commitment to Western Civilization and the Great Books or what is generally referred to as the Western canon, it all began to unravel. Standards of excellence were jettisoned in favor of well-intentioned but woefully misguided notions of “Be Fair” and “Do No Harm”. The outcome of the “Culture Wars” in the 1980s and 1990s was that five hundred years of Western Enlightenment thinking was jettisoned in favor of pop culture.

My website, www.literarygulag.com, is in willful resistance to this tyranny. As someone incarcerated in the Literary Gulag, I have the freedom to write the truth. My essays are archived and available for readers. In particular, I encourage them to look at “The Great Books and Cultural Identity: The Rise and Fall of Western Memory and Its Implications for Our Time”, http://www.literarygulag.com/Reading-in-2010.pdf, and “Reading and Thinking Critically in the Age of Disputation”, http://www.literarygulag.com/Critical-Thinking.pdf.

4) Sadly, the cheap, sleazy, sexually saturated books of today have replaced the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Dumas and many of our great writers. What does this say about our culture? And the mass media?

The loss of historical understanding was analyzed by Christopher Lasch in 1978 when he published his book “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations”. By the 1990s, before the Internet sapped our ability to read and think in solitude, our literary critics were reluctantly concluding that our culture, founded upon reading, was drawing to a close. The symptoms of that collapse were most evident in English, which of all the departments in the humanities most quickly and completely divested itself of all its cultural heritage.

Not surprisingly, two of our greatest literary critics of the second half of the 20th Century, Alvin Kernan and Harold Bloom, wrote at great length about this phenomenon. As Kernan noted in “The Death of Literature” (1990), the novel was increasingly irrelevant: “Literature began to lose its authority, and consequently its reality, at the same time that the ability to read the book, literacy, was decreasing, that audiovisual images, film, television, and computer screen, were replacing the printed book as the most efficient and preferred source of entertainment and knowledge”. He concluded that “Humanism’s long dream of learning, of arriving at some final truth by enough reading and writing, is breaking up in our time”. In what was to prove to be an elegy for literature, Harold Bloom noted in “The Western Canon” (1994) that “the ages of reading” were drawing to a close and that the new era “will be almost wholly an oral and visual culture”.

While I’m not optimistic about the future of reading and literature, the advent of the e-book gives us great access to fiction and nonfiction and enhanced portability. You can read the entire works of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Dumas for a few dollars. For the committed reader that is a boon.

Occasionally, there is a new theatrical production that inspires us to reread a literary classic. I was recently in New York City where I saw the punk opera “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”, which was an adaptation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, http://www.timeout.com/newyork/theater/natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812. It was delightful. A very enthusiastic cast engaged the audience in a setting that resembled a Russian-style dinner club. The “twenty-something” woman who attended the performance with me said that as a result of seeing that performance she now wanted to read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. So let’s not lose all hope.

5) Immediate and instant gratification–how do these words cause consternation to any serious scholar and writer?

The problem is that what sells today taps into our desire for celebrity hype and pop thrills. Some nonfiction still draws an audience. But the writer who wants to write fiction engaged with the world has a difficult challenge. Literary fiction has become “virtue fiction”. It has ceased to tell us anything meaningful. It’s feminized and irrelevant. And the rest is genre.

6) The Renaissance, the Reformation, the War of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War are all in the past. How do we go about convincing the Kardashian followers (now the North West followers) that there are better things to spend their time on?

We become unplugged. We turn off our tablets, smart phones, laptops, computers, TVs and the rest. We read history to understand who we were and what we are becoming. We consult the Western canon to try to make sense of our world. We read, read, and read some more. We write to gain an understanding of what we’ve read. We ignore the noise: we tune out social media. We become individuals who start to think meaningfully again. All else is bunk.

7) Some books are meant to be read, some to be savored, some to be studied, some to be dissected and some to be discussed. But are the schools of education doing this?

I’m afraid I’ve never been a proponent of “schools of education”. I think students need a discipline: history, literature, physics, engineering . . . . Become an expert in an area. Study the very best ideas and thinkers known to civilization. Discard the rest.

But in answer to what I believe is at the root of your question, in our public schools, teachers don’t teach much anymore. Instead, they’re preparing students for standardized tests. The students barely learn anything. Mostly, they’re acquiring techniques to pass state and federally mandated exams. They study less and watch television more. They spend more time texting and on the Internet than reading and writing. They don’t read demanding books, and they certainly don’t write challenging research papers based on real academic content. They haven’t immersed themselves in great ideas. “Ordinary” college students that I taught twelve years ago were better readers and writers than some of the “gifted” students I’ve taught this year in an honors program.

Maybe faculty who teach all the time don’t notice how much the capabilities of students have declined over the years. But since I don’t teach often, the change is not only astounding, it’s terrifying. The only references I could make last semester to my students in the honors program that were mutually understood were based on TV programs and movies. We had no common cultural points of view. I found it very depressing.

8) I share your fears about the decline of “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” as per Howard Gardner–but I am sure that the people who push all this standardized testing down the throats of kids are not concerned about students appreciating the beauty of art, music, dance, theater, drama. Is there anyone out there sincerely advocating for the arts?

When Dana Gioia was the head of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush, I felt that America had a tremendous advocate for the arts. He created programs such as “Shakespeare in American Communities” and “NEA Jazz Masters”, which promoted jazz.

These days the most effective advocates of culture are conservatives who insist on standards of excellence based on an appreciation of our Western heritage. Howard Gardner is all very well and good. But if you want to understand the current crisis in the humanities, you must read the seminal study by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, “What Does Bowdoin Teach?: How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students”, published by the National Association of Scholars, http://www.nas.org/images/documents/What_Does_Bowdoin_Teach.pdf. Bowdoin College, as Peter Wood notes, serves as “an ethnography of an academic culture, its worldview, customs, and values”.

Amongst the 182 faculty who teach full-time there, fewer than a half-dozen could be characterized as conservative. This report examines what is taught and the ideology that drives the college’s pedagogy. Bowdoin’s failure is symptomatic of the failure of not just “elite” colleges but almost all colleges and universities these days. The humanities has been sabotaged for the misguided cause of social justice. To ignore this study is not only to ensure the loss of another generation of students, but to threaten America’s ability to compete globally.

What does Bowdoin Teach” concludes that while it is possible for students to study the canonical works of literature—“key epochs in history; the abiding achievements and faultlines of civilizations; the central ideas in philosophy, politics, and economics; and the foundational concepts of science and mathematics”—doing so requires guidance and determination, as well as a “considerable foreknowledge of both these subjects and the Bowdoin curriculum to chart such a path”. In other words, to obtain a humanities education now requires expertise, guidance, and determination not to mention a conservative disposition. On the other hand, courses abound that emphasize diversity, tolerance, sustainability. These courses are likely to embrace the “socially constructed” nature of gender differences and to emphasize global citizenry at the expense of Western identity.

While critical thinking is nominally valued, it is constantly undermined by the prevailing political bias of left-leaning academics who impose their political agenda, thereby preventing impartial inquiry essential to academic scholarship. At Bowdoin, identity politics accounts for a staggering 18 percent of the courses offered. Social clubs are saturated in multiculturalism, but nearly devoid of intellectual content. Indeed, Bowdoin has only four clubs devoted to academic pursuits [physics, debating, robotics, and German].

In “the Higher Education Scandal”, Harvey C. Mansfield reviews “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” in a recent issue of “The Claremont Review of Books”, http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.2089/article_detail.asp. Bowdoin, suggests Mansfield, advocates “inclusiveness” but not when it comes to political diversity. The course offerings are “topical”, devoted to the environment, gender issues, global citizenship, and multiculturalism. What the curriculum does not emphasize are broad survey courses that provide a substantive understanding of our Western culture. More and more classes focus on the arcane specialties of the faculty, which often have ideological biases and are increasingly devoid of intellectual content. There is an emphasis in “studies” devoted to the “isms” and identity politics. The result is that Bowdoin’s curriculum is characterized by “flatness”—Tom Friedman’s misguided notion that the world is all the same—at the expense of a Western historical worldview. Mansfield’s assessment, based on this case study, is that Bowdoin’s students convey a smug “knowingness” bereft of intellectual curiosity.

9) I see this as a beginning discussion on a critical crucial topic–but even the thought of students being in a seminar with colleagues, discussing the life of Nelson Mandela for example–might send shivers down undergraduate’s spines. How can we keep this discussion alive, and how can we reach the policy matters?

Nelson Mandela’s story is one of an extraordinary individual who devoted his life to the cause of racial equality and political justice. To endure twenty-seven years in prison and then go on to lead your nation from apartheid rule to representative democracy, what a journey! Mandela’s life is inspiration for anyone who yearns for a better society and who refuses to relinquish that dream. Just as Gandhi’s story resonated with the hearts and minds of freedom fighters throughout the world, Nelson Mandela’s narrative will continue to inspire the hopes and dreams of every human being who advocates the cause of justice.

10) I lastly see online classes contributing to the decline of quality discussion, quality reflection, in depth study and serious scholarship. Your thoughts?

I think we’re in agreement here. The online experience will never be as enriching as classroom-based instruction, which fosters the interaction between students, their peers, and their professors. But the financials of educational institutions are driving learning online. Soon, I fear, only privileged students will have small classrooms in which they interact with classmates and faculty. However, there is little doubt that for some committed and determined students, online learning will be a salvation. I suspect most of these students will be technologically driven. Already the MOOCs are concentrating on these areas.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

I encourage your readers to check out my essays at my website, www.literarygulag.com and my blog at the Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-diana-e-sheets/.

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