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Students Voting With Their Feet

Apr 15, 2019 by

By Mark Bauerlein

Thirty years ago, when Allan Bloom, Bill Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, Camille Paglia, Lynne Cheney, and many others decried the rise of identity politics in the humanities, the professors had a ready response.  “The humanities have never been more vibrant and relevant and rigorous,” they proclaimed.  The steady put-down of Dead White Male authors and artists that the conservative critics bemoaned was not a suppression that forsook the Western tradition and turned people off.  It was, instead, an exciting opening that brought unjustly overlooked individuals and cultures into the curriculum.  The humanities had never been so healthy and attractive!

That was in 1994.  It was hard then for critics of the humanities to prove them wrong.  After all, many of those critics weren’t even practicing professors, and the ones who were practicing professors were mightily outnumbered on campus.  While the critics were writing best-selling books such as Tenured Radicals and appearing on talk shows, the professors were changing the syllabus and devising new theories and creating new job descriptions.  The critics got all the publicity–Bloom became a national celebrity–but they had little impact on the course of the disciplines.  Why should the professors care what the critics said?  They had the jobs, they controlled the hiring.

And so they drove ever farther into Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, Ecocriticism, Cultural Studies, Gender Theory, Intersectionality, and various exotic sub-formations.  Let the conservatives howl all they want.  The rising generation of humanities scholars and teachers would transform the study of the past, and nobody could stop them.

That was how bold and ambitious the professors were in the Nineties.  They were on a roll, riding high, convinced that the institution was in their hands and would last forever.

All that confidence is gone now, and it wasn’t the critics who took it away.  Go to conferences, mingle in departments, talk to editors in the fields, and you will find a general pessimism and quiet desperation.  The cause isn’t Donald Trump.  It’s the undergraduates, who over the last several years have been turning away from humanities courses and going to other majors.  According to various reports, the number of degrees granted in history, English, foreign languages, and philosophy have fallen disastrously.  That’s the cold reality humanities professors face, and it has squelched their revolutionary dreams.  Disciplines that used to stand at the center of higher education are now at the margins. 

Let’s get specific.  Right now, English, history, foreign languages, and philosophy together collect a mere one in 20 of all the bachelor’s degrees awarded each year.  According to the American Historical Association, from the years 2011 to 2017, the number of history degrees earned fell more than 30 percent, while degrees in philosophy, English, and foreign languages went down more than 20 percent.  We have reached the point that the humanities are a negligible part of most Americans’ undergraduate experience.

What can the professors say about this?  It leaves them at a total loss.  It is easy for them to denounce conservative critics as reactionary, uptight, racist, and sexist, but they can’t attack 19-year-olds in the same way.  Indeed, to criticize the young is to start sounding conservative!  But how are they to respond to the loss of their formerly captive audience.  The professors ho believed fervently in the rightness and goodness of their actions must admit that they have presided over an institutional collapse of their domains that is astonishing, not to mention caused by an unexpected source.  

The professors believe just as strongly as ever that the turn of their fields away from traditionalist orientations (Great Books, Western Civilization, the Great American Novel) and toward identity themes of race, and sex was wholly just and timely.  But those convictions haven’t carried over to undergraduates.  They’re not interested in what today’s humanities professorate has to offer.  The professors still think intersectionality is a captivating idea, but it hasn’t seemed to have inspired very many 20-year-olds.  What is a professor to do when the small revolution he helped bring about proves to be a bust?

There is, however, another small revolution taking place right now.  Or rather, now a revolution, but a restoration.  At several campuses around the country, professors have created special programs devoted to teaching the very works using the very approaches that the humanities theorists derided starting several decades ago.  These programs are frank about wanting to maintain the Western tradition.  They refer unabashedly to “the classics.”  They boast of their commitment to the canon.  They avoid the trendy language of cultural theory.

Everything about them is unfashionable.  They sound oh-so-19th century.  All the hot social issues (white privilege, toxic masculinity . . .) they ignore.  The people operating those programs sound like they missed the insertion of political awareness into the humanities that was cast as a liberation long ago, one which academics would never abandon.  Indeed, that political awareness was understood as disciplinary competence.  If you can’t do race theory, you don’t qualify for the field.

What is the result of these out-of-touch, backward-looking, old-fashioned programs?  It is the opposite of what is happening in standard humanities departments.  Applications and enrollments are climbing, sometimes astoundingly.

At Clemson University, an initiative called the Lyceum Program offers a minor in Political Science that emphasizes classics of political theory–the Greeks, Machiavelli, Marx, Mill, . . .   Students have to enroll in eight courses taught as Socratic seminars, and they have to meet with professors each week for on-on-one tutorials.  The program offers ten scholarships per year ($2,500).  When it started four years ago, the program got 200 applications.  This year, they got more than 650 applications.  Demand is so high that the program has opened up to non-scholarship students, kids who get no money but can enroll in the courses.  In two years, those enrollments have climbed from zero to 102.

The University of Texas-Austin has the Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts & Ideas, which announces up front that it involves “the study of the great books.”  It began in 2014.   Currently, the program gets 500 applications for only 130 available posts in its Scholars Program.
One of the worst consequences of the politicization of the academic humanities is the drift of it down into the secondary level.  High school humanities teachers have picked up the identity focus and changed their syllabi accordingly–more contemporary, multicultural material, less traditional, canonical, dead White Male stuff.  Students are stuck in those courses; they can’t go down the hall and pursue other subjects. 

But when alternative schools open, such as classical education charter schools, parents leap at them.  Great Hearts Academies is a charter network that began in the mid-00s as a single middle school in Arizona.  The curriculum proudly imparts Western Civilization, praising the moral imagination, not social justice, teaching Latin and Greek, not climate change.  Here is how the network has changed: it now operates in Arizona and Texas in 28 schools with 17,000 students and some 14,000 kids on the waiting list. 

It is hard not to draw the conclusion from these examples (one could list many more) that these programs have prospered because the humanities departments have abandoned the traditional turf.  Demand for the old-fashioned humanities remains, and regular departments aren’t meeting it.  The numbers make the argument all by themselves.  

They also chart the way toward the revival of the humanities in higher education.  No matter what happens in the humanities world of research, pedagogy, conferences, publishing, and all the other things the professors do, if undergraduates continue to slide away from humanities courses, the fields can’t thrive.  We should be looking closely at these success stories and give no more credence to the academic left and its promises of social progress.

Last month, I gave a lecture on the humanities at a small Christian college in the middle of the country.  In the question & answer period, a young man stated that he had gotten a degree in English at the school, which gave him traditional instruction in the canon.  But now, he continued, he was enrolled in a graduate literature program at a large state university and was receiving a more critical instruction in issues of identity and “exclusion.”  He was quite gratified by that.  What did I think?

I answered: “Right now, debates over the canon and who gets included and excluded don’t really matter.  We are in a survival situation.  All theoretical questions begin with how the answers will affect enrollments.” 

We have to consider what 19-year-olds want.  Do they find the identity politics classroom compelling?  Only a few of them do.  

Do they find Hamlet’s dilemma interesting?  Is Jane Eyre’s situation meaningful?  Do Beethoven’s symphonies excite them?  Do they like Impressionist paintings?  Yes, they do, lots of them.  Undergraduate tastes spell the end of the political hijacking of the humanities.  Smart professors will realize this and get back to the core of their mission: to pass along the Great Books and High Culture of the past.

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