Breaking News: Humanities in Decline! Film at 11.

by Michael Bérubé on November 16, 2010

Drew Gilpin Faust does a reasonably good job of defending the study of the  humanities in this brief interview, especially after interviewer Tamron Hall’s second question puts the concepts of “critical thinking” and “imagination” on the table.  But I have to say that the whole thing gets off to a false start—no, wait, hold the phone, make that two false starts.

The second false start is the opening of Faust’s response to the first question, which raises the likely possibility that the “perhaps the occupation of an art historian won’t pay the bills.”

Well, I think that the issue of jobs is sometimes misunderstood by students.  We have many Harvard undergraduates who did major, as we say at Harvard concentrate, in the humanities who’ve gone on to be very prosperous and to be very successful in fields like business and a wide range of professional fields.  So what you study as an undergraduate is not necessarily the path that you will follow professionally once you leave school.  And in fact humanities majors, a wide range of liberal arts majors, prepare you very well for a variety of different fields.  So I think students need to understand that as they make their choices as undergraduates.

If you’re trying to defend the humanities across the board, you obviously don’t need that second sentence, because everyone knows that Harvard undergraduates can go on to be very prosperous and very successful even if they concentrate in basketweaving.  (Some have even become famous bloggers!)  There is no economic penalty for studying French or art history at Harvard—or at small liberal arts colleges like Williams or Grinnell, for that matter.  And so when language programs are targeted for layoffs and closures, the odds are that those programs won’t be at Harvard, and the “but a Harvard degree is still a passport to $ucce$$” defense won’t play very well at SUNY-Albany or LSU.  Saying “the issue of jobs is sometimes misunderstood by students” and then following simply with the arguments that one’s major does not determine one’s career and that liberal arts graduates are well-prepared for a wide variety of jobs should suffice; adding the Harvard bit will only (a) distract from the question of the value of the humanities more generally and (b) paradoxically give fuel to the people who believe that most universities should become trade schools, like John McWhorter,* who was predictably contrarian in that New York Times forum on the Albany closings.

But as for the first false start: once more with feeling, the entire premise of the segment is wrong.  Here’s Tamron Hall’s intro:  students are “now making the jump to more specialized fields like business and economics, and it’s getting worse.  Just look at this:  in 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.”  So things are getting worse?  Really?  No, not really, not even according to the graphic MSNBC put up at the :13 mark (data source: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).  Go ahead, look at it again.  I’ll wait right here.  Compared to 17.4 percent in1967, yow!  We are totally in trouble!  … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent.  And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now.

I’m sorry, everyone.  I know I’ve gone on and on about this in recent years, especially when I have to deal with people who claim that humanities enrollments declined in “recent decades” because of icky things like “theory” and “racial and sexual identity,” or cranks who try to blame that nonexistent enrollment decline on “a virulent strain of Marxist radicalism” (hey, if you thought the virulent Marxism was bad, just wait ‘til we institute Shari’a law!).  But I just don’t know of any realm of human endeavor in which a precipitous decline from 1967 to 1987, followed by a couple of decades of stability, counts as breaking news. It’s the equivalent of saying “sales of Sgt. Pepper posters have declined sharply since 1967,”** and trying to pass it off as tonight’s lead story.  But for some reason, when it comes to the humanities, it works every time.

The real story should be this: amazingly, remarkably, counterintuitively and bizarrely, humanities majors in the United States, as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, have held steady since about 1990—since the onset of the culture wars, in fact.  Despite all the attacks on our Piss Christ this and our queerying that and our deconstructing the Other; despite all the parents and friends and journalists and random passersby telling students they’ll be consigned to a life of selling apples and flipping burgers if they major in English; despite the skyrocketing of tuition and the rise of the predatory private-student-loan industry; despite all this, humanities enrollments have been at or about the 8 percent mark for about twenty years.  However, because we continually tell ourselves that we have fallen–

                    O how fall’n!  how chang’d
From them, who in the happy Days of Rage
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
All the other undergraduate programs on Campus

–even though the fall (a) stopped happening 20 years ago and (b) followed an anomalous high point in the history of American higher education, we keep playing into the hands of the people who want to cut us ‘til they kill us.

Two final points on this.  One old one, which I first made in 1999 and then made again in Rhetorical Occasions in 2006: the decline of humanities enrollments was not simply a decline of the humanities.

… between 1974 and 1985, humanities enrollments did, in fact, decrease by 18.2 percent.  But enrollments in the social sciences fell much further, by 33.7 percent, and even in the physical sciences the drop was a considerable 19.4 percent.  Where did those students go?  To business (a 65.3 percent increase), engineering (up by 92.2 percent), and computer science (a staggering, but altogether historically appropriate, increase of 627.3 percent).  Interestingly, between 1986 and 1997 business majors underwent a dramatic decline: in 1986 they accounted for 24 percent of all degrees awarded (237,319 out of 987,823), whereas in 1997 they had slipped to 19.3 percent of all degrees (226,633 out of 1,172,879).

And one new one, about which I just learned (je viens d’apprendre) last month: apparently many furren-language majors in the U.S. are double majors.  But there is no reliable reporting on double majors, so any “program review” that concludes that students just aren’t taking furren languages from Othercountriestan will tend to undercount students doubling in Mechanical Engineering and German, or International Law and French.*** Worth keeping in mind next time the budget axe comes swinging your way.

_________

*    Interestingly, McWhorter got his bachelor’s degree in French (Rutgers) before earning an M.A. in American Studies (New York University) and a Ph.D. in linguistics (Stanford).  All of which goes to show that Drew Faust is right: you can major in French and still go on to become a very successful professionally licensed contrarian who responds to the Albany closings by writing, “Imagine a situation where humanities departments are a selling point for certain schools, while most colleges and universities move in the direction of being essentially trade schools. This would require a change of lens: instead of bemoaning that undergraduates seek majors based on employability, we would see this as the norm.”  You certainly can’t predict someone’s career path based on their major alone!

**   An astute observer of “popular” “culture” suggested to me that sales of Sgt. Pepper posters might have spiked briefly in the mid-1990s after the release of the Beatles’ Anthology series began the long-term rehabilitation of the Beatles’ reputation, which the solo careers of the Fab Four had done so much to diminish.  I directed this astute observer to the spike in the MSNBC graph, which shows an increase in humanities enrollments around 1995-96 and almost certainly corresponds to slightly more vigorous Sgt. Pepper poster sales around that time.  I choose my analogies carefully, you know.

*** We are not supposed to care about French anymore because it is not a “strategic” language, like the languages of the Middle East (strategic terror languages) and South / East Asia (strategic rising economic giant languages).  French is merely a language for ordering nice food (also known as “hawt” cuisine) in a small corner of Europe, and even though it is spoken by millions of Africans outside Europe and a bunch of hockey players and fur trappers in French Canadia, not far from Albany, NY, they are unfortunately of no strategic importance.

{ 116 comments }

1

mds 11.16.10 at 9:14 pm

Well, honestly, as I sit here contemplating the bitter dregs of my own curriculum vitae, I wish there had been an attempt to erase the stigma of trade schools ten or fifteen years ago. But such promotion of practical education need not, and should not, come at the expense of liberal arts programs and institutions, since it seems much more to be driven by the spurious requirement of a college degree for everything from soup to nuts.**

**I choose my analogies frivolously, you know.

2

Salient 11.16.10 at 9:20 pm

Thank you for the recapitulation of the point that a healthy and respectable number of people are still deciding to pursue a college career of carefully studying interesting social phenomena, and that gee whiz, that kind of intense study when paired with lighter dabbling in a breadth of disciplines could maybe-just-maybe yield a more versatile worker as well as a happier more flourishing human being.

But maaan, it’s nearly five hours after 11, and there’s still no Youtube update that digests and pithily summarizes all of this for me. I was promised a film at 11. Truth in advertising!

I think “virulent strain of [--]” as nonsense hyperbole is underused, by now it should be so ubiquitous we should be seeing virulent stain type puns as often as we sneeze, but it just hasn’t caught on as a meme, except within their little circles of left-hating antidebaucheric wholesomeness. It is maybe not a compliment to these critics that their mode of speaking is decidedly noninfectious.

even though it is spoken by millions of Africans outside Europe and a bunch of hockey players and fur trappers in French Canadia, not far from Albany, NY, they are unfortunately of no strategic importance.

Given that the amount of ‘strategic importance’ we assign to a people’s language seems directly proportional to the likelihood that our country would like to bomb or drone-attack them, I think you misspelled “fortunately.” :)

3

Harry 11.16.10 at 9:32 pm

Oh, I imagine that sales of Sgt Pepper are experiencing a very big spike today, and will stay that way til Christmas.

The decline in computer science majors in recent years is, actually, spectacular, and might be worth both headlines and some sort of action to reverse the trend (certain of former, not of latter).

4

Michael Bérubé 11.16.10 at 9:38 pm

that kind of intense study when paired with lighter dabbling in a breadth of disciplines could maybe-just-maybe yield a more versatile worker as well as a happier more flourishing human being.

What is this “happier and more flourishing” you speak of? I tried to Babelfish-translate this into Neoliberalese and kept getting gibberish.

I imagine that sales of Sgt Pepper are experiencing a very big spike today

No doubt. But sales of Sgt. Pepper posters have declined since 1967, and now it’s getting even worse!

5

spyder 11.16.10 at 9:51 pm

The French, Beatles, and careful analogies, all rolled into one. Propitious? I think not. Today, UNESCO honored French cuisine as a world heritage food source, APPLE agrees to sell Beatles on iTunes, and all of those public school teachers that got humanities degrees in the 60s and early 70s are nearing retirement age. May the humanities spike again!

6

Salient 11.16.10 at 9:52 pm

What is this “happier and more flourishing” you speak of? I tried to Babelfish-translate this into Neoliberalese and kept getting gibberish.

It’s a virulent strain of nonmarket leisure activity

7

Calderon 11.16.10 at 10:11 pm

Is there a site online that shows the changes in degrees granted in various subjects over time, and if so, could you please post a link? Would be interesting information to see.

8

aaron_m 11.16.10 at 10:23 pm

Go pick on BSc Chemistry?

9

Tom M 11.16.10 at 10:32 pm

random passersby parents telling students their children they’ll be consigned to a life of selling apples and flipping burgers if they major in English;…

Fixed for you. As parents of a history major (with a job!) and an art history major (without a job!) we may have failed them but it was, is and will be a happy fail.
I accompanied the older to an accepted student session at the school she chose and in a room with the parents of about 30 other prospects, none talked about their desire for a liberal arts education. It was all pre-law and pre-med which to me seemed they were looking for a higher-class trade school.

10

spyder 11.16.10 at 10:32 pm

11

bianca steele 11.16.10 at 10:55 pm

@3 I know software engineers who absolutely don’t want their kids to study computers, and software engineers who do. I also know of kids who are studying computer science in spite of their dads’ (usually) telling them it’s a bad idea–it’s just too cool, you could write your own roleplaying game. I would say if you want to do technical stuff (not move very quickly into e.g. marketing), and you think you might be ambitious or easily bored, you should get a master’s at a minimum.

12

bianca steele 11.16.10 at 10:56 pm

What about communications majors. I know a disproportionate number of communications students from the 1980s who are way underemployed.

13

Gene O'Grady 11.16.10 at 11:07 pm

For what it’s worth about a month ago I said that if Larry Summers had bothered to develop the skills that art historians develop he wouldn’t have been such a total failure at his last two jobs.

14

Jurgen Stizmuller 11.16.10 at 11:56 pm

Word.

15

Castorp 11.17.10 at 12:51 am

“What is this “happier and more flourishing” you speak of? I tried to Babelfish-translate this into Neoliberalese and kept getting gibberish.”

That’s a tricky one. The best I could do was a “richer and more empowered consumer.”

16

Bloix 11.17.10 at 12:53 am

Forty years ago you didn’t have to mortgage yourself in order to buy a college education. If you graduate from a good school with a degree in comparative literature, you’re an educated young person. If you graduate from a good school with a degree in comparative literature and $100,000 in student loan debt, you’re a chump.

17

Dave Maier 11.17.10 at 1:00 am

I like the interviewer’s suggestion that if one lets it slip that one is a philosophy major the natural reaction to that news is that one is a “slacker”; to which Faust’s response is basically that undergraduate majors don’t mean anything, and that while some people need to sow a little intellectual wild oats in their misspent youth, they usually turn out okay in the end.

Speaking as a slacker myself, I have to agree that a philosophy BA is small potatoes: you don’t get to the serious slackage — the big potatoes, if you like — until you find yourself writing a 250-page dissertation on such bagatelles [that's French] as the question of what it is for a word to mean something. Because that never comes up.

18

John Quiggin 11.17.10 at 1:54 am

Communications strikes me as a con job, selling a cut-down humanities degree with the pretence that it’s a trade certificate. My impressions are that
(i) the proportion of graduates who actually get media jobs is small
(ii) it’s not that hard to work your way into a media job with a real humanities degree, or even with no particular qualification at all

Of course, this varies a lot from place to place

19

Ebenezer Scrooge 11.17.10 at 2:18 am

I’m not so much worried about the decline in humanities majors, since there doesn’t seem to be any. I’m a bit more worried about the increase in preprofessional majors: business, engineering, communications, and the like.

But what really frightens me is the decline is rigorous majors. Except for engineering, none of the preprofessional majors are particularly rigorous. The humanities are often rigorous: invariably philosophy, and often the others. So are math/physical science. Not so much social science, although economics I suppose is math lite. This is not to trash social science, which is worthy of study. It just doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a rigorous undergrad major.

Which explains why the hierarchy of law school admissions goes something like: philosophy, physics, etc.

20

Tom T. 11.17.10 at 2:25 am

I know a disproportionate number of communications students from the 1980s who are way underemployed.

Well, yes; athletes have such short careers.

21

djw 11.17.10 at 2:25 am

What strikes me as particularly odd about the SUNY-Albany and LSU cases is that if we accept the ‘college as trade school’ logic, the foreign languages become one of the most useful skill disseminating part of the humanities there is. I mean, there are all these global corporations, and someday everyone worth talking to will speak English, but we’re not there yet. Being fluent in foreign languages is one of the clearest, most straightforward skills one can put on a resume.

22

Michael Bérubé 11.17.10 at 3:31 am

I like the interviewer’s suggestion that if one lets it slip that one is a philosophy major the natural reaction to that news is that one is a “slacker”

Indeed, the word is that people like Dave Maier are the worst kind of slackers — anti-dualist slackers. You know, the ones who deny the existence of the rock I just kicked. Also, they drive students away from the humanities.

And I was mostly agreeing with Ebenezer @ 19 until he suggested that law school admissions have something to do with “rigor.”

Calderon @ 7, apologies for leaving you in moderation while I went to make my life happier and more flourishing by seeing these guys perform. Your question:

Is there a site online that shows the changes in degrees granted in various subjects over time, and if so, could you please post a link? Would be interesting information to see.

I never go anywhere without my Digest of Education Statistics. Check out that nearly-threefold increase in degrees in the visual and performing arts! It’s almost as if people come out of the K-12 system wanting to “express themselves” or something.

23

Dave Maier 11.17.10 at 3:59 am

That’s funny, because I would have thought that if anything’s going to be materialist (as in “dialectical materialism,” for instance?) rather than idealist (like Berkeley) it would be the “virulent strain of Marxist radicalism” which has driven students, &c. I wish the wingnuts would get their talking points straight. Oh wait, that’s supposed to show that we’re confused. Got it.

Btw you promised us a wingnut-off when you bailed from the other blog. Don’t forget!

24

JP Stormcrow 11.17.10 at 4:13 am

“What is this “happier and more flourishing” you speak of? I tried to Babelfish-translate this into Neoliberalese and kept getting gibberish.”

I got, “allocate 50% more ironic self-deprecation in the marketing budget”.

25

Sebastian 11.17.10 at 4:46 am

Bloix got it right at (or about) #16.

26

mregan 11.17.10 at 5:01 am

After the death rattle of Antioch College a few years back, lets hope that it doesn’t spread to any of the other Ohio liberal arts schools. Perhaps if they as a group stay flexible enough in their curricula, or pull in more of the descendents of alumni, we will be spared headlines like
“Rigid Heirship Heidelburg Crashes”
“Oh! the Humanities!”

27

I repeat myself 11.17.10 at 5:54 am

“Remove yourself Sirrah, the wench belongs to me;” Blabbered
a drunken soldier, too far consumed by the influences of his
virile brew to take note of the superior size of his adversary.
Grignr lithly bounded from the startled female, his face lit
up to an ashen red ferocity, and eyes locked in a searing feral
blaze toward the swaying soldier.
“To hell with you, braggard!” Bellowed the angered Ecordian,
as he hefted his finely honed broad sword.

28

Anand Manikutty 11.17.10 at 7:27 am

@22 – Michael, that was a terrific link. Scanning down the line for
“Computer and Information sciences” degrees, there is a clear decline from 2004 onwards, but the actual decline in Computer Science degrees (not including Information sciences degrees) is even more. By the by, I also happened to notice that there is an incorrect value for column 5 for “Computer and Information sciences” degrees (corresponding to 1985-86).

29

Colin Danby 11.17.10 at 7:28 am

I see this in my own bailiwick. Upper administrators come around saying we must be hard-headed and practical and respond to data on student demand. Excellent, you reply: look at this data showing demand for arts degrees! And they gape at you and change the subject.

30

a.y. mous 11.17.10 at 10:39 am

>> the entire premise of the segment is wrong.

So is yours. Terrapins on testudines on kacchuas.

Academic institutions, useful as they are, are not adequate guardians of the interests of civilization in a world where everyone outside their walls is too busy for unutilitarian pursuits. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many. But their labours were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good.

Wie Lange? Proletarii vseh stran, soedinjajtes’! Arrêter! Ich bin ein blogger. And bloody proud of it!

Off-topic: Why isn’t BR referred to more often on CT?

31

Calderon 11.17.10 at 3:05 pm

Michael — no problem, and thanks very much for the link.

32

BKN 11.17.10 at 4:44 pm

Re John Quiggin @ 18 : “it’s not that hard to work your way into a media job with a real humanities degree, or even with no particular qualification at all.” Yes, if they’ll even let you try.
I have a humanities masters. After a decade of adjuncting I’ve been out in the “real” job market, without success, for 18 months. The main thing I’ve learned about that market, at least around here, is that almost every occupation has become, to a large extent, professionalized. There is now some sort of university degree or college certificate, and quasi-professional accreditation, for every job, including (really, no joke): people who write press releases for non-profits, shuffle patient files in hospitals, trim trees, or work the counter at industrial parts supply wholesalers. A reasonably bright and diligent teenager could be trained on the job to do these jobs. I had jobs in two of these categories when I was a teenager 30 years ago. I could not get these jobs today, either as my teenage self or as my current self, because I don’t have the right ticket.

I attribute this to three factors, whose relative importance varies from case to case:
1. Entrepreneurial higher education administrators looking to boost enrolments.
2. Employers looking to minimize the costs and risks of hiring.
3. Employees collectively looking to boost the prestige, pay, and security of their job.

33

bianca steele 11.17.10 at 5:29 pm

Arts degrees presumably include commercial art, you would probably assume an increase in web design and film courses, and I’m not quite sure the rise in formal writing and art degree programs means there’s lots more room for slackers who are only getting degrees in what interests them with no thought of a career.

Also, perhaps Bell might have decided to canceled the program on the basis of that written report, evidence or no evidence? Nah. And hey, I’d love to pay higher rates so executives can have time to shoot the breeze with one another and further their humanities education.

34

burritoboy 11.17.10 at 5:33 pm

We apparently have this discussion every two to four weeks.

Let’s be blunt and rude: the vocational degrees are usually garbage, like everyone suspected but didn’t want to say. Let’s look at how many of them were entirely built on the assumption that neoclassical economics was undoubtedly true, for just one example.

And when a person with an actual education looks at neoclassical economics in a serious way, it’s dubious at best. For example, the whole thing is based upon a leap in epistemology that someone really trained in philosophy is going to be staring at and wondering how neoclassical economics thought it was going to get away with that leap (once I encountered it myself, I literally was dumbfounded for several days).

People who don’t have humanities training have not been trained to be able to critically examine something like neoclassical economics. (Some people have enough natural talent that they can do it anyway, but that’s relatively few people). All these practical, vocationally-trained, people ended up blindly following a piece of philosophical reasoning within neoclassical economics that wouldn’t particularly be impressive from a sophomore philosophy major. They thought they were practical when they were unwitting and fanatical acolytes of hobbyist amateur philosophers!

What it always really struck me as particularly bizarre is students spend so much time on thinking about their vocational majors, while often strongly ignoring actual internship opportunities or work experience opportunities. Is a business class that you slept through better than actually getting work experience?

35

bianca steele 11.17.10 at 5:54 pm

I’m also pretty sure the number of professional performers who attend regular colleges and universities has been going up too. Conservatories are being reaccredited as colleges and universities, middle class kids who might have gone to work at 18 while taking private lessons and going to auditions are going to college instead, and rich kids who might have gotten a genteel degree in French while taking private lessons want a head start on their career instead of doing that.

36

Western Dave 11.17.10 at 6:26 pm

Wow, and nobody’s mentioned 21st century learning yet? Geez. Colleges are so behind the times. Again.

37

Jacob H. 11.17.10 at 8:07 pm

Fun conversation. I should only add that the only reason you should learn anything is that it is beautiful, and this most definitely includes physics, biology, and economics, computer science, statistics, and engineering. Aesthetics and understanding are really the same thing.

38

SamChevre 11.17.10 at 9:01 pm

Let’s be blunt and rude: the vocational degrees are usually garbage, like everyone suspected but didn’t want to say. Let’s look at how many of them were entirely built on the assumption that neoclassical economics was undoubtedly true, for just one example.

Huh?

Neoclassical economics is important in the social sciences, which are hardly vocational degrees. It’s a approximately no importance in any vocational degree I can think of. (Whatever you think of IASB or GAAP rules, they are not theories.)

39

sbk 11.17.10 at 9:13 pm

Both “Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities” and “Multi/interdisciplinary studies” increase considerably in raw numbers over the date range in question, while numbers for “English language and literature/letters” and “Foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics” are static or fall slightly. I wonder if that’s a sign of less rigor, more general curiosity (and tolerance of general curiosity by administrations), or both— or neither.

“Communications” encompasses a decent range of corporate jobs, doesn’t it? Marketing, PR, documentation/QA, that sort of thing. I could be wrong about this, but I think it is a real niche.

ToS watch on “a.y. mous” (#30).

40

Michael Bérubé 11.17.10 at 9:25 pm

Both “Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities” and “Multi/interdisciplinary studies” increase considerably in raw numbers over the date range in question

Curious, no? I don’t know whether it’s less rigor or more interdisciplinarity-in-general (and remember, for the cranks, those two are the same thing), but I do know that no one ever, ever cites those columns when they’re doing their humanities-in-decline shtick.

And thanks for the ToS alert, but I caught the real thing in moderation and deleted him; a. y. mous seems to be cultivating a somewhat different, though equally baffling, form of incoherence.

41

burritoboy 11.17.10 at 10:24 pm

“Neoclassical economics is important in the social sciences, which are hardly vocational degrees. It’s a approximately no importance in any vocational degree I can think of. (Whatever you think of IASB or GAAP rules, they are not theories.)”

Business education is (or was) pretty explicitly based upon neoclassical economics. Yes, even in accounting, beyond teaching the GAAP rules, textbooks were almost solely a discussion of how GAAP rules interacted with (various aspects of) neoclassical economics.

And neoclassical economics got very heavily imported into policy studies, health care management studies, human resources, law and economics, agricultural training, and many more. And many engineering programs require their students to take “engineering management” courses, which are also usually taught relying upon neoclassical economics.

42

spyder 11.17.10 at 10:44 pm

This just in: University of Colorado at Boulder is shuttering down the Journalism department next fall. The department runs a very active and important environmental journalism group; hopefully they will find a way to retain it within some structure.

43

garymar 11.17.10 at 11:09 pm

.
ToS?

Troll on Site?
Thaumaturgy opposing Serendipity?

(My online dictionary is open. I will continue unless you enlighten me.)

My first degree was in the humanities. Then I got an engineering degree years later. That is the correct order. Irony + calculus = Big Win!

44

ben w 11.17.10 at 11:17 pm

ToS = Troll of Sorrow, a virus which originally infected Adam Kotsko and has since spread quite wide.

He should have a wikipedia page.

45

Substance McGravitas 11.17.10 at 11:32 pm

It would be swell if someone deleted all of my now-very-weird-looking comments on this thread since the ToS has been erased:

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/11/07/swift-versus-berlin-on-positive-liberty/

I look positively unhinged.

46

Lemuel Pitkin 11.18.10 at 2:24 am

the vocational degrees are usually garbage, like everyone suspected but didn’t want to say. Let’s look at how many of them were entirely built on the assumption that neoclassical economics was undoubtedly true, for just one example.

Well, how many is that, though?

I’m going to propose a hypothesis: None of them. What’s your evidence on the other side?

Business education is (or was) pretty explicitly based upon neoclassical economics.

Where on earth did you get this idea? I take it you’ve never, for instance, spoke to a person who teaches at a business school, or read anything published by one?

47

Lemuel Pitkin 11.18.10 at 2:29 am

Re the Troll of Sorrow, he was most recently commenting here under the handle “Beauregard.” I’m glad he’s been cleared out; it may seem harsh but the fact that CT actively enforces its rules for commenters is a big reason you can have real (often very interesting!) conversations here, unlike lots of blogs.

I do wonder about the psychology of it, though. Why would would someone go to such persistent lengths to talk with people he insists he despises?

48

Lemuel Pitkin 11.18.10 at 2:38 am

Incidentally, for those interested in further explorations in Troll of Sorrowdom (and who isn’t, really?) there’s a classic example in this thread, where he’s going by the name of jake. Starts at 26 but really hits his stride at 51.

49

Barry 11.18.10 at 3:20 am

bianca steele 11.17.10 at 5:54 pm

“I’m also pretty sure the number of professional performers who attend regular colleges and universities has been going up too. Conservatories are being reaccredited as colleges and universities, middle class kids who might have gone to work at 18 while taking private lessons and going to auditions are going to college instead, and rich kids who might have gotten a genteel degree in French while taking private lessons want a head start on their career instead of doing that.”

A friend’s sister was able to make a living in NYC as an actress/singer/dancer/tech theater person (sort of a utility player). She got her BA first, doing summer work as well. In her opinion, that’s necessary; the way that she put it was that vast numbers of high school students starred in their school play, and therefore thought that they could move to NYC (or LA) and get a job. Once they got there, they found that people who had a few more years of education and experience beat them everytime.

50

Salient 11.18.10 at 4:21 am

Why would would someone go to such persistent lengths to talk with people he insists he despises?

Heh. [Embarrassed cough.] As someone who has on multiple occasions gotten into multiple-day pseudo-conversations with individuals as patently disinterested in hearing me out as I probably am in reading their inevitable next response, pairwise defining words like ‘tendentious’ and ‘entrenched’ about as well as any dictionary, I feel like I should be able to answer this. (Taking an expansive definition of ‘despises,’ as I try not to despise anyone, etc.) But when my brain isn’t mechanically locked into such a preoccupying engagement, it’s as mystifying to me as to you, and when my brain is so inclined, it’s not terribly meta-reflective.

It’s hard to find a popular-ish unmoderated blog without at least one permanent commenter who views themselves as an antagonist to most everyone who visits the blog in good faith, and whose negative comments constitute a double-digit percentage of the commentary to most posts. I suspect it’s persecution fetish, combined with the same sort of excitement we all experience when engaging with a person who is listening to us. That latter excitement gets taken to excess and distorted into sociopathy and emotional abuse; essentially cyber-bullying. Like all forms of bullying, it’s a control thing, an exercise of power over someone else’s emotions. On the other end of the same spectrum, it’s hard-headedness, the feeling that one has one’s facts in order and just hasn’t nailed the right argument yet — caring enough about the other party to want to try and show them, if not why you’re right, then maybe why you’re reasonable. Self-defense. And once one’s identity’s wrapped up in it, it’s no surprise that folks would make a sustained investment of time and energy. Notice the sometimes tendentiously bullheaded folks [I don't excuse myself from this category] invariably cling to their name with pride, whereas the most aggressive bully trolls change names like the wind. Control of others/bullying, versus self-control/image management/identity.

51

burritoboy 11.18.10 at 5:53 am

“Where on earth did you get this idea? I take it you’ve never, for instance, spoke to a person who teaches at a business school, or read anything published by one?”

I actually spent two years in the confines of one – along with a bunch of people who primarily had undergraduate business degrees (so they had already gone through 4 or more years of business studies). I’m sort of astonished at the level of nonsense on this topic: at the undergrad level, most business students take a good heaping of economics classes no matter what their major – in business schools, this was primarily taught through the lens of neoclassical. If they’re management majors, they learn the theory of the firm by Coase , Williamson and Jensen (I was even assigned a paper by Alchian). If they’re finance majors, their curriculum would have almost entirely derived from neoclassical economics (the best places will actually have you read the original Fama, Markowitz, Sharpe, Modigliani/Miller, Fama/French and so on papers). They’ll also spend a fair bit of time on game theory, taught explicitly through the neoclassical take on game theory (noncooperative games exclusively). People pursuing graduate degrees get compressed versions of the above. There were some areas where neoclassical didn’t dominate: marketing, strategy (usually taught by sociologists), operations research but most of the fields were primarily composed of neoclassical economists.

Heck, I’ll send you my syllabi if you want me to.

52

a.y. mous 11.18.10 at 6:44 am

C’mon Michael, I didn’t say anything new at all. I found it a very apt sentiment to share on this thread. A simple phrase search on lmgtfy would have made things clearer. But, I’m disappointed. Of all the chaps here, you sure should have recognised the lost art of idle praise.

53

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 11.18.10 at 7:10 am

“There were some areas where neoclassical didn’t dominate: marketing, strategy (usually taught by sociologists), operations research but most of the fields were primarily composed of neoclassical economists.”

Except the sharper B-school majors will notice that when you’re reading Porter on strategy and the five forces, that Porter’s sources of competitive advantage are market imperfections.

The funniest time I had was after a i-Banker explained the process of making book for an IPO (which was very fucking far from a frictionless market with perfect transparency of information), one of the students dismissed one of the i-Banker’s observations because it violated the Efficient Market Hypothesis.

54

Sebastian 11.18.10 at 8:02 am

I know this risks going fairly far afield, but isn’t much of the teaching of neoclassical economics focused on micro-economics/business finance–areas which are of a more practical nature? Or do you not call that neoclassical? It seems to me that macroeconomics has taken some serious hits of late, but that micro hasn’t suffered nearly so much (and doesn’t deserve to suffer nearly so much). Is that impression wrong?

55

Michael Bérubé 11.18.10 at 1:14 pm

a. y., it’s just that I did not understand “terrapins on testudines on kacchuas.” Actually, I didn’t understand anything that followed it, either.

56

Cdunc123 11.18.10 at 2:38 pm

I think we’re all ignoring the main question:

Why does Sgt. Pepper get all the love from critics? For every one time I listen to Sgt. Pepper, I’ve listened to Abbey Road 4.3 times and the White Album 5.1 times.

Of course, if it’s posters we’re talking about, I’d go with Sgt. Pepper. An Abbey Road or White Album poster would suck eggs.

57

MRM 11.18.10 at 2:48 pm

“Despite all the attacks on our Piss Christ this and our queerying that and our deconstructing the Other … “

Though this is a small bit of a much larger piece, I find an idea intimated here that is both common and objectionable when debating the fate of the humanities. What I have in mind is the tendency to equate literary studies – the place where concepts like “queer” (at least as used here) and “deconstruct” have a home – with the humanities as a whole. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to describe it as the tendency to equate post-structuralist thought with the humanities in general.

58

Salient 11.18.10 at 3:11 pm

Actually, I didn’t understand anything that followed it, either.

Babelfish is just failing you on all counts lately, isn’t it :)

59

Lemuel Pitkin 11.18.10 at 3:30 pm

burritoboy @51-

OK, I believe you. My comment was overly confrontational, and I apologize.

I still have to say, tho, that from my perspective as a consumer of economics literature, I find that people in business schools are much less doctrinaire than people in economics departments — they’re far more likely to write empirical papers that simply describe the observed behavior of firms, without needing to spend half the paper rationalizing the findings in terms of some model of optimizing agents with rational expectations. It can be a real breath of fresh air.

60

belle le triste 11.18.10 at 3:39 pm

Terrapins etc is an it’s-turtles-all-the-way-down-young-man gag, surely?

61

Zamfir 11.18.10 at 3:51 pm

I thought the turtles joke was OK, and even appropriate to certain situations where people keep using new terminology to express the same tired idea. Work for the Dole, you know.

Not sure what the joke was doing here.

62

Nonymous 11.18.10 at 4:45 pm

While it’s certainly fair to say that most humanities degrees don’t really constitute a terribly good preparation for most potential jobs, what seems to go unnoticed is that NO degree constitutes such preparation.

Does a business degree, say, really inform one in any meaningful way as to what is required to succeed as a typical worker or manager at, say, Ford, or Target, or in a local bank, or as an insurance agent, or in the vast array of jobs that comprise the real workforce out there? Virtually all of the required skills can be learned on the job, and indeed must be learned on the job, because they are so specific to the business in question. What does some knowledge of watered down economics or game theory contribute to one’s competence at these jobs, except on rare occasion?

Of course, there do exist many jobs for which a targeted degree is essential, such as those in engineering. But such jobs constitute, I should think, only a minority of all professional jobs available.

In short, the real delusion here is that ANY particular degree is genuine preparation for the greatest proportion of today’s job market. A degree in the humanities is no worse in this respect than any other.

63

mds 11.18.10 at 5:06 pm

Well, Professor, in mous’ defense, koala Singapore au jus invert.

64

a.y. mous 11.18.10 at 6:20 pm

It’s been a while for me here on Crooked Timber. I’d rather y’all drop the mous and just call me anon.

Michael, I hate to spoil a joke, but I respect you far too much to suffer your incomprehension. That was a copy-paste from the essay titled “In Praise of Idleness” by Bertrand Russell which I was sure you would have known by heart. Mea culpa. Some re-arranging of sentences, that’s all. The last line, by me, catch BR speaking German! was a throwaway under the garb of a giveaway.

Zamfir almost got it. At my age, and I’m not that old, education vis-à-vis employment is as sour a trope as politics vis-à-vis government. Hence, my note on how universities continue to be out of touch with reality. Many upstream have commented on this.

More personally, I am really surprised by the marked lack of references to BR here on CT. The polity here is equally comfortable with the ideological left, as they are with being very much singularly devoted to their respective professions and dogmas. A few of you are even on the production side of economics and not merely play consultancy for bread and plasma TV. Hence my plea.

Hope the airs have been cleared a bit.

65

burritoboy 11.18.10 at 6:49 pm

“Except the sharper B-school majors will notice that when you’re reading Porter on strategy and the five forces, that Porter’s sources of competitive advantage are market imperfections.”

My precise point is that it’s extremely rare for even the very sharpest business majors to even have the capability to notice that – they are not trained to do that. As a graduate business students, those who had undergraduate business degrees were (generally) the least capable of critical thinking on that level (in my experience only, of course). The most capable of doing so were either people trained in traditional liberal arts programs or as engineers.

66

soc_sci_anon 11.18.10 at 7:11 pm

Michael @#22. “I never go anywhere without my Digest of Education Statistics.”

Not to distract from the fascinating question of neoclassical terrapins in the Sgt. Pepper poster, but I’d like to point out that if ever one needed an example of how administrative statistics are politicized, please take note of the table in the DES to which Anand @#29 links and Michael refers.

It is evidently critical to calculate trends for majors in engineering and engineering technologies. We can’t possibly aggregate majors in communications with majors in communication technologies, whatever that means. It is a matter of national security to track how many majors in military technologies graduate each year. But, it is evidently perfectly acceptable to lump all of the social sciences together (because neoclassical economics and cultural anthropology are really the same thing, except that one uses that math stuff), and to throw in history for good measure.

67

Michael Bérubé 11.18.10 at 7:27 pm

Michael, I hate to spoil a joke, but I respect you far too much to suffer your incomprehension. That was a copy-paste from the essay titled “In Praise of Idleness” by Bertrand Russell which I was sure you would have known by heart. Mea culpa.

No, no, mea maxima culpa. As I used to say on my old blog, I are a total ignoramus. But no, I haven’t committed the sentences of “In Praise of Idleness” to memory and couldn’t make the connection. As for the terrapins, I thought it was either a turtles-all-the-way-down bit or something about the ACC or the Grateful Dead.

Thing is, since Russell’s time, the US has embarked on this wild, crazy, wacky madcap adventure called “mass higher education.” Then, well into the experiment, we decided that higher education was a private investment rather than a public good, so we offloaded its costs onto individuals and families (see “neoliberalese,” above). So it makes sense for some of the masses to wonder whether the time and money spent in college are going to help get a decent job. And maybe a happier and more flourishing life, as well.

68

Keith 11.18.10 at 8:05 pm

@ burritoboy:

If vocational degrees are mostly “garbage,” then why do you classify engineering and the sciences as part of the “traditional liberal arts”?

You seem to be clearly defining arbitrarily what the “liberal arts” are — and it seems to your concept of “vocation” is narrowed to “neoliberal studies/business/anything else that sounds greedy”.

The truth is that economics, which is commonly classified as part of the “liberal arts,” is closer to business studies than the humanities, and the pure/natural sciences, closer to engineering than the social sciences.

Then again, I’m sure all those undergraduate students at the Wharton School of Business at UPenn are “applied” plebes who would be better off studying at a proper school like Princeton. Right?

69

Michael Bérubé 11.18.10 at 10:26 pm

MRM @ 57:

Though this is a small bit of a much larger piece, I find an idea intimated here that is both common and objectionable when debating the fate of the humanities. What I have in mind is the tendency to equate literary studies – the place where concepts like “queer” (at least as used here) and “deconstruct” have a home – with the humanities as a whole. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to describe it as the tendency to equate post-structuralist thought with the humanities in general.

Leaving aside the point that historians or artists might be surprised to learn that the concept of “queer” has its proper home in literary studies, perhaps it is possible to point out that Piss Christ, queer theory, and deconstruction were attacked (as examples of all that is wrong with the contemporary arts and humanities) without thereby equating them (or poststructuralism) with the humanities as a whole. Yes, I’m quite sure it is.

70

Anderson 11.18.10 at 10:56 pm

Compared to 17.4 percent in1967, yow!

Was that itself a flukishly high figure, due in some part to the desire of many young people to avoid toting rifles in the jungles of Southeast Asia?

71

Harold 11.19.10 at 12:31 am

Leave it to Bertrand Russell to clear the air. I love how in his autobiography he describes how the professors at Harvard would stop him in the halls to tell him an anecdote they had already told him before many times over, and when he tried to pre-empt them by telling it himself, to show that he knew it, they would hear him out politely and then, quite undeterred, go on and repeat the very same anecdote with all seriousness. My own late father in law, a distinguished professor and administrator, rest his soul, and otherwise sharp as a tack until the day he died, used to indulge in this very behavior. You could feel the air being sucked out of the room, sometimes, when he and his colleagues got together.

72

burritoboy 11.19.10 at 12:35 am

“Then again, I’m sure all those undergraduate students at the Wharton School of Business at UPenn are “applied” plebes who would be better off studying at a proper school like Princeton. Right?”

You seem to have me confused with Myles. Yes, it would be better if business undergraduates would study liberal arts. Right now, they don’t learn enough economics to be able to critically analyze the economic assumptions they are being fed, so it would be preferable for them to study economics simply, rather than to be business majors.

Of course, I don’t think economics is that wonderful either, but my experience is that it does provide more foundations than do the business majors.

“You seem to be clearly defining arbitrarily what the “liberal arts” are—and it seems to your concept of “vocation” is narrowed to “neoliberal studies/business/anything else that sounds greedy”.”

I explicitly laid out in a previous comment some of the other areas that imported neoclassical economics without seeming to have any ability to understand what they were doing: health care management, policy studies, public health, human resources, agricultural training and many more. Of course, there are other vocational areas which did little to no importing. But that wasn’t because they rejected neoclassical economics, it’s because they simply had no need for any economics training whatsoever.

73

spyder 11.19.10 at 12:39 am

Taking up a bit of snark for a moment, i deem to think that without important humanities curricula in higher education, the future professional athletes in the system would have no place to turn to work towards graduation. You can’t ask an entire offensive line protecting Cam Newton to take comprehensive courses in engineering or microbiology.

As for the terrapins, I thought it was either a turtles-all-the-way-down bit or something about the ACC or the Grateful Dead.
Yes, there is a station for that, in the UCSC library, i think.

74

burritoboy 11.19.10 at 12:44 am

“So it makes sense for some of the masses to wonder whether the time and money spent in college are going to help get a decent job. And maybe a happier and more flourishing life, as well.”

Since the masses seem to believe that the happiest and most flourishing life lies in eagerly volunteering to be the slaves of such monsters as the Koch brothers, Berlusconi and Rupert Murdoch, why precisely should we be interested in the content of their wonderings? Do we analyze what dung beetles believe is the happiest and most flourishing life too? Actually, since dung beetles seem to have no illusions that they do not want to be slaves to that gang of pimps, the dung beetle moral sense may well be significantly more developed than that of the human masses.

75

Harold 11.19.10 at 1:23 am

Well, a liberal education was intended for free and independent people, not slaves, I believe. “Plato is my friend, but I love the truth more” — as someone once said.

76

Lemuel Pitkin 11.19.10 at 2:01 am

Since the masses seem to believe that the happiest and most flourishing life lies in eagerly volunteering to be the slaves of such monsters as the Koch brothers, Berlusconi and Rupert Murdoch, why precisely should we be interested in the content of their wonderings? Do we analyze what dung beetles believe is the happiest and most flourishing life too?

Wow. Just wow. I don’t think even Mylse SG could excrete such a load of self-important pomposity. I’d vote for Berlusconi too, if I thought this was the alternative.

77

joel hanes 11.19.10 at 3:28 am

“Why does Sgt. Pepper get all the love from critics?”

I’m not a critic, but I suspect that Sgt. Pepper’s was so different from the other “rock and roll” then being made, and also so different from the Beatles previous work, that contemporary critics perceived it as “revolutionary”. It kinda was. Maybe you had to be there, in a mileau where one regularly heard crap by Herman’s Hermits and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, to understand how completely different from anything else it sounded.

As for why the declining enrollment in Com. Sci. and computer engineering, I’d say that the twenty-five-years-and-ongoing plateau in median salaries (i.e. lifestyle steadily losing ground to inflation) and the simultaneous decay in working conditions (offices gave way to cubicles; life/work balance gave way to the expectation that one’s entire life would be dedicated to corporate goals, and that one would be online and working seven days a week,; support staff has disappeared) have been accurately perceived by young Americans who are choosing a career, and they have for the most part chosen to abandon the field to the H1B holders who now populate so much of the tech workplace.

78

Michael Bérubé 11.19.10 at 4:21 am

Anderson @ 70:

Was that itself a flukishly high figure, due in some part to the desire of many young people to avoid toting rifles in the jungles of Southeast Asia?

Short answer: yes.

And as for Sgt. Pepper, Cdunc 123 @ 56: you could argue that (a) it was the first Beatles LP that announced itself so clearly as a “concept” album that Capitol Records (US) didn’t dare carve it up into smaller denominations, as they had with every other Beatles EMI – Parlophone (UK) release, thereby changing the record industry forever (not least by making albums more important than singles), and (b) it unified all of Western culture, as Langdon Winner once wrote: “the closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. . . . At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”

But the really important point to be made is that the critical love for Sgt. Pepper tends to obscure the fact that song for song, Revolver is the strongest album in the Beatles oeuvre.

79

garymar 11.19.10 at 4:21 am

Sgt. Pepper — yes, you had to be there.

My brother bought the album when it came out. Eighteen months later we had to buy another copy — because repeated playing had worn through the dark outer vinyl layer and revealed the white plastic inside. Needless to say we had the entire thing memorized.

Of course it was also impossible to avoid lesser ilk like the “1910 Fruit Gum Company”: “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy” and that line will remain engraved on my brain until the day I die.

80

Mike 11.19.10 at 4:28 am

“We are not supposed to care about French anymore because it is not a “strategic” language, like the languages of the Middle East (strategic terror languages) and South / East Asia (strategic rising economic giant languages). French is merely a language for ordering nice food (also known as “hawt” cuisine) in a small corner of Europe, and even though it is spoken by millions of Africans outside Europe and a bunch of hockey players and fur trappers in French Canadia, not far from Albany, NY, they are unfortunately of no strategic importance.”

French is still considered “strategic” by the Defense Department — it’s on their list of “strategic” languages. I assume it is still on the list is for the reason you mention – it is widespread throughout northern, Ccntral, and western Africa.

See this Navy discussion of the Fiscal Year 2010 Strategic Language List.
http://www.memphis.edu/nrotc/docs/OPNAVNOTE_5300_-_FY10_Strategic_Language_List__25_SEP_09_.pdf

The entire list is worth perusing as it is surprising more in depth than could be imagined.

81

Harold 11.19.10 at 5:50 am

The crisis in the humanities is not occurring in the universities so much as in the elementary grades, where they are most needed and where the fetishization of capitalism has virtually taken over:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/us/19gates.html?hpw

82

joel hanes 11.19.10 at 6:41 am

> Revolver

Song for song, I’m very very fond of “Magical Mystery Tour”

see? I told you I was no critic

83

David 11.19.10 at 6:42 am

All I could take away from this thread is that somehow The Beatles and French are connected. Then it seemed to wander astray. I’m still puzzling the connection.

84

Anderson 11.19.10 at 2:06 pm

All I could take away from this thread is that somehow The Beatles and French are connected. Then it seemed to wander astray. I’m still puzzling the connection.

“Michelle, ma belle ….” Got it now?

85

bianca steele 11.19.10 at 6:02 pm

@77 I suspect you could also argue that there had been a bubble in new CS graduates, fed by Y2K fears (though not sure the chronology makes sense), dotcom hype (though they often enough hired people without formal training), and the constant drumbeat about not enough graduates (fed in part by impossible demands for “credentials” for skills with a cycle shorter than five years, which any experienced person who needed a university course to learn them was probably not very good in the first place). But that reflects badly on universities and makes me look like a prof-basher, doesn’t it? :(

86

AcademicLurker 11.19.10 at 6:23 pm

85: Actually, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to call out universities that position themselves to become dubious “credential mills”.

It seems to me that some universities have definitely been taking advantage of the overall levels of jobs related desperation by starting fly-by-night programs in *fashionable thing X*, with the promise (absent much compelling evidence) that a Master’s in X will be your ticket to steady employment.

And I say this as a prof. myself, so bash away.

87

burritoboy 11.19.10 at 6:25 pm

“Wow. Just wow. I don’t think even Mylse SG could excrete such a load of self-important pomposity. I’d vote for Berlusconi too, if I thought this was the alternative.”

Yes, Lemuel, we’re already well aware that you’d eagerly vote for Berlusconi for aesthetic reasons (or for any other reason, if you’re being honest with yourself).

88

Myles SG 11.19.10 at 8:41 pm

What about communications majors. I know a disproportionate number of communications students from the 1980s who are way underemployed.

That’s not a really college degree, is it? Communications, snicker. Isn’t that designed exclusively for dumb football players?

89

Myles SG 11.19.10 at 8:45 pm

Real college degree*. Contrary to popular perception, film studies (at least at certain colleges) is a real college degree. Communications, however, is a diff. case altogether. Does any reputable liberal arts undergraduate institution offer that as a major? (Not the various semi-detached Schools of Communications/Journalism, etc. but communications as a major).

On another note, if you are going to take a vocational degree, you should be at trade school, not college. Babson, for example, is a perfectly appropriate destination.

90

BlaiseP 11.19.10 at 9:44 pm

I’ve been writing software since the Beatles Rarities was released. I’ve interviewed, hired, managed and mentored hundreds of programmers over the years. The CS graduates are the most-difficult to integrate into a consulting team. The philosophy and literature grads who took a few CS courses are a joy: they’re capable of writing lucid, effective prose. Their code is orderly, often beautiful. They empathise with the users of the code they write. They can be trusted around the clients. They’re far less likely to rush to implementation. Unlike their CS peers, the Humanities graduates are humble enough to be taught via example and creative enough to see the patterns of this craft. I have to keep the CS people away from clients: whatever they’re teaching in CS these days is not producing candidates worth consideration for high-visibility consulting engagements.

Scratch a competent programmer and you will find either an artist or a musician.

91

Maynard Handley 11.19.10 at 10:08 pm

“Insofar as instruction in “the humanities” makes people better able to communicate in speech, writing, and visual images (which includes both the ability to speak and write well and produce good visual images and the ability to decode the speeches, writings, and visual images produced by others) of course it has “practical” (i.e., vocational) as well as intrinsic value.”

There are some strange, very strange things going on here that are obvious to anyone who looks.
I listen to a LOT of university talk/lecture podcasts, from a variety of universities across a variety of disciplines, and there are very strong patterns to the talks that are given. Some are interesting and fairly well-known, but irrelevant to us right now — for example physicists, believing (correctly, hah! [I'm a physicist] ) that they are the smartest person in the room, are very aggressive at interrupting speakers and asking questions, whether the topic is within their domain of expertise or something completely different (eg when Murray Gell-Mann addresses a group of physicists on his current interest, the deep history of language); economists behave likewise though not quite as aggressively.

However the one thing I suspect few would have predicted is that scientists and engineers, in general, give extremely good talks. They speak fluently, their thought are organized, and they never read from notes. They understand the limitations of the medium — that a talk is for overview and explanation, while reading is for appreciation of the full details of the math and the argument.

At the other end of the scale, English lecturers give truly astonishingly bad talks; the convention in English appears to be that delivering a talk consists of reading in a monotonic drone from an article written in dense stereotypical prose, with little discussion of what is being presented and why it’s interesting. (And I say this not as someone with an axe to grind against English departments. Occasionally I find a speaker discussing a subject, like various types of literary criticism, or some common arc within a set of texts, in a way that suggests that truly find this interesting, and I find what they have to say truly fascinating. But these speakers are all too rare.

In between we have the vast area that covers the humanities and the social scientists. What we find is that
- historians are generally pretty damn good, unless they want to become amateur sociologists, in which case we get the droning reading of a dense jargon-laden article
- likewise for classicists
- sociologists, on the other hand, are often pretty good, even when in theory mode — they seem to actually have some interest in their theories and a desire to explain them to the world, rather than just going through the motions.

I’m sad to say that the departments you’d expect to be polemical within the humanities, eg women’s studies, african-american studies, jewish studies, generally are. I don’t know if it’s the laziness of preaching to the converted, but these talks pretty uniformly come across as having absolutely nothing to say that isn’t already known to any intelligent human being, unless they’re a long catalog of the methodological details of some study — the sort of thing that any scientist/engineer would omit, telling you at the end of the talk to read such and such an article if you want the details.

So what can we conclude?
Disappointingly, I’d have to say that for many in the humanities, what they appear to be taught is how to produce a very specific sort of paper that bears almost no relationship to the communication engaged in by most of the rest of the academy, along with zero skills in how to present the ideas in those papers vocally and in a limited amount of time.
On the plus side, they do also learn how to interpret and dissect words, images and artifacts in a way that is substantially more sophisticated than the skills possessed by the rest of us, and when these skills are put to good use and communicated well the results can be enlightening and enthralling. Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether the skills are rarely being put to good use, or if the findings are just never communicated to the outside world, but it’s rare indeed to find these ideas communicated in a way that isn’t completely awful. Consider, to take one example of all of what I’m saying, Foucault. The ideas he has to convey, in a book like Discipline and Punish, are really really interesting — interesting historically, politically, sociologically, psychologically. But my god, you have to have some really strong motivation to actually make it all the way through a Foucault work without wanting to stab your eyes out.

I’d conclude by saying that this seems, to me, to be substantially self-inflicted by the humanities. I’m the last person to praise my fellow man, but I think there is a substantial fraction of the US (and world) population that really does appreciate learning and understanding, and supports money that is spent on this endeavor. All they ask in return is to be given some insight into what has been learned. Many disciplines understand this bargain and do their best to give back — we’ve long been awash in popular books, good, even very good, popular books on the hard sciences and engineering, on various aspects of history, on psychology and sociology. The political scientists are late to the party, but we’re slowly seeing cross-over social science popular books that discuss issues like median voter models, voting methods and game theory.
But most of the humanities seem utterly uninterested in this exercise, and, even worse, to portray an air of being above popularization — “what we say is so subtel and refined that a mere commoner could never understand it, no matter how we tried, so why make the effort”?
If the classics profession, for example, is unwilling to let the outside world know what the new ideas are in their field over the past 30 years, is it any wonder that the outside world considers that the subject had been mined out by 1900, and so who cares if their department folds?
If the public face of the Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, and English departments is some refugee from the 60s waving a protest sign, rather than people talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book on how critical theory helps us deconstruct advertising, textbooks, newspapers, and the entire social world around us, should we be surprised that no-one outside these departments cares much about saving them?

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bianca steele 11.20.10 at 3:24 am

AL@86: I wouldn’t use the term “diploma mills” myself.

I meant what I said about the usefulness of an MS or higher degree. There are some employers who simply hire only people with masters’ degrees, and you won’t get past the (nontechnical) gatekeepers if you don’t have that letter, and for some people there is something intangible about the difference. That is very, very different from the idea that it makes sense to offer something like a master’s degree in J2EE.

BlaiseP @ 90: With all due respect, and trying not to sound snotty, close to all of the places I’ve worked hire only graduates of near-top engineering and research schools with CS degrees and (general) coursework in related areas, and consulting experience wouldn’t be much of a plus. The skill set is different. Hiring a software engineer, what I absolutely do not want is, someone who needs to be spoon fed an architecture, and freezes up when they are asked to take responsibility for a design.

Do corporations send their accountants, and law firms their first-years, to talk to the clients without any supervision? Of course not. Who are the people who are so unprepared to represent the organization on the outside that they’ll run down it and their coworkers? If they are CS graduates, I’ll be surprised.

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Anderson 11.20.10 at 2:26 pm

if you are going to take a vocational degree, you should be at trade school, not college

I went to vocational school myself, tho I think the official name was the University of Mississippi School of Law.

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JJ 11.20.10 at 5:13 pm

“I went to vocational school myself, tho I think the official name was the University of Mississippi School of Law.”

Proper Nouns are commonly capitalized. Common Nouns are properly set in lower-case, non-capitalized type. Hence, you may well have attended the University of Mississippi School of Law which, in your opinion, was nothing more than a vocational school that presumably specialized in Common Law, but the UMSL cranks out capitalized graduates, whereas the Mississippi School of Hospitality and Hotel Management (MSHHM) cranks out common case servants who cater to their capitalized clients. I suppose it would be terribly impolitic to observe that the natural focus of any given clause is the capitalized class of property, surrounded by the common class of servants who subsequentially support them.

Whatever.

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Harold 11.20.10 at 6:33 pm

At the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia (then a BA program) A. J. Liebling was exempted from writing courses, possibly on the strength of several short stories he had written: “My queerest disillusion, he said, ‘came in a course in just straight writing. I was excused from it on the ground that I could already write ‘well enough.’ I have often thought back on that ‘well enough’ with wonderment; well enough for what? The aim of a serious professional school should have been to teach everybody to write as well as Tom Paine or William Cobbett.’” (Quoted in Raymond Sokolov, Wayward Reporter: the Life of A. J. Liebling, 1980, pp. 53-54)

Whatever the case, according to Sokolov, “he did somehow demonstrate his writing competence and that gave him space in his schedule to take Old French from Raymond Weeks [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Weeks ]. And to keep his hand in with modern French, he seems to have translated several pages of elegant erotica by Restif de La Bretonne.” [NOTE: this is what Bertrand Russell undoubtedly meant by "leisure.”]

“Otherwise,” Sokolov goes on, “the school was a washout for Liebling. In The Wayward Pressman, he complains about the exercises in ‘newswriting’ and that the model he and his classmates were meant to copy was Adolph Ochs’s ‘colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless [New York] Times of 1923, a political hermaphrodite capable of intercourse with conservatives of both parties at the same time.’ The Pulitzer School, he concluded, ‘had all the intellectual status of a training school for future employees of the A & P [grocery chain].’”

According to Sokolov, “Liebling’s chapter on Columbia in The Wayward Pressman is entitled ‘How to Learn Nothing.’ Still, his exposure to Romance Philology did really make an intellectual difference to him. Raymond Weeks was a fine scholar and a writer too. . . . That course must have been part of the impetus behind [Liebling’s] studies two years later in Paris and in Normandy. The subject also gave him a learned frame for his passion for Villon and Rabelais. But as a whole, Columbia struck him as a pointless exercise. He said, ‘The newspaper world is full of alumni of schools of journalism, but they seldom admit it until their interrogator thrusts hot needles under their fingernail.’”(Sokolov, 1980, p. 55)

[Lieblings’ view may have been colored by the fact that he, a Jew, had previously twice been thrown out of Dartmouth College for repeatedly missing compulsory Chapel, despite an exemplary academic record.]

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BlaiseP 11.21.10 at 8:27 pm

Bianca Steele @92: Cucullus non facit monachum , nor technology an architect. I have fired many graduates of engineering and research schools whose dogmatism has doomed their designs. I cannot comment on your hiring choices without a fuller understanding of your situation, but I have been at this for many decades. People are hired for their abilities and fired for their personalities. That much remains constant.

A well-trained gibbon with a copy of Eclipse can write software. What is this about taking responsibility for a design? Ultimately, the client must take responsibility for all that is done with his money, and his own staff must understand and believe in the solution the consultant will leave behind.

The crop of MSCS graduates has an undying faith in technology. They are handed off to me, practically illiterate, with no manners and huge deficits in the personality department. I have spent more time un-teaching the lunacy they’ve learned than I will ever spend with their Humanities peers. Consultants routinely out-earn their tree-hugging peers about three to one: I have little patience with anyone who cannot comport themselves with users and managers.

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Myles SG 11.22.10 at 8:42 am

I went to vocational school myself, tho I think the official name was the University of Mississippi School of Law.

That’s professional school, not trade school. Professional schools require previous undergraduate study, and thus presumes existing general academic aptitude.

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Myles SG 11.22.10 at 8:47 am

Mississippi School of Hospitality and Hotel Management

I don’t comprehend why it hasn’t been re-named the Marriot or Conrad Hilton school already. After all, the point of it is to generate suitable servants for said entities.

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Zamfir 11.22.10 at 10:51 am

That’s professional school, not trade school. Professional schools require previous undergraduate study, and thus presumes existing general academic aptitude.

So people who want vocational training shouldn’t go to college, because if the job training in question requires colleges, it’s not vocational but professional?

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Anand Manikutty 11.22.10 at 1:42 pm

While I think it is unfair to automatically dismiss somebody with an undergraduate in history or literature as lacking a mathematical sense of proportion (I personally would definitely drill down into a history or literature major’s resume before making any hiring decisions), it is not unfair for employers to view a total lack of advanced mathematical courses in undergraduate and graduate coursework as indicative of a lack of facility with mathematics. I am not proposing that everybody take classes in advanced calculus and complexity theory to show proof of their mathematical ability, but students who do not have statistics or mathematics on their undergraduate and graduate school resume would do well to shore it up by simply taking a few online courses in mathematics, since such is sufficient for most administrative jobs.

I believe that Drew Faust is a poor decision-maker and, this is well within the topic of discussion, the fact that she lacks a good sense of mathematical proportion may have something to do with it. (In fact, it is hard not to get a sense from many decisions taken by her that while she may be a fine writer, she analyzes issues a bit differently than an engineer or a social scientist, who may be inclined to focus more on the numbers. ) I find it hard to believe that one could be an effective administrator while lacking the ability to utilize the precision of mathematics, since the mathematics of statistics underlies so much of strategy and economics. But, opinions on this and the shape of the earth vary a bit.

Just my two cents.

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Owen Ewald 11.22.10 at 3:53 pm

Maynard Handley writes,

I have been trying to let the “outside world” know about new ideas in Classics for the last five years via free podcasts. If you are interested, please Google “C. May Marston Lecture.”

Sincerely, Owen Ewald

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bianca steele 11.22.10 at 4:02 pm

Anand:
Re. your 1st paragraph: It is very uncommon for undergraduates to take math courses unless they are pursuing degrees in math, engineering, or the sciences, or they have statistics or some kind of finite math content required for a social sciences program. They are supposed to have acquired competence at least just short of calculus in high school, and total incompetence in math can scuttle acceptance to an elite college even for prospective literature majors.

Re. your second: While not totally dismissing everything you say, most managerial and administrative tasks would seem not to involve statistics very much, those tasks involving much smaller numbers (populations) than appropriate for that science; but maybe I’m misunderstanding you.

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Zamfir 11.22.10 at 4:18 pm

I never understood why high-school calculus is everywhere the high point of maths encountered by the general population. It’s a pretty technical subject that is only useful to people who will get lots of maths later on anyway.

For people who will not take more maths lessons, I’d say that enough statistics to vaguely understand newspaper claims should be the practical priority, plus a decent practice in mathematical proofs as part of general education.

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Salient 11.22.10 at 5:26 pm

I never understood why high-school calculus is everywhere the high point of maths encountered by the general population.

It’s not; this varies state by state in the US; some states do not require more than a year of algebra and a year of geometry; my current state of residence requires a second year of algebra, which mostly repeats the content of the first. You’re right about how peculiar a trajectory it is for prospective college applicants, though I think some notion of differentiation and integration can be meaningful in a nontechnical way. Facility with statistics and probability is technically ‘required’ in many states, but in practice this is satisfied in rather arbitrary and meaningless ways, with topics tucked in amongst the algebra/geometry — I don’t know that correct construction or interpretation of a stem-and-leaf plot is what anyone would have in mind.

Another good thing to never understand is why geometry is prioritized over statistics, calculus, linear algebra, or a hundred other possible things. I think there’s no course more destructive to one’s sense of “a decent practice in mathematical proofs” than a mediocre high school geometry course.

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Harold 11.22.10 at 6:51 pm

If the purpose of college education were really only to be a gate keeper for future employment, then allowing a student to educate him or herself and then take an exam — in statistics, calculus, or whatever — ought to serve the same purpose just as well or better. Indeed, U of Chicago tried to do just that, but high school administrators all over the country rebelled.

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Mark Bauerlein 11.23.10 at 3:08 pm

How easy it is, Michael, to cast dismay over the fixation on “theory” and “identity” as a fastidious response to those “icky” things. For what it’s worth, having written a lot of scholarly pages on theory and racial identity, sometimes assuming theoretical and identitarian perspectives and sometimes criticizing them, I can say that “ickiness” has nothing to do with it.

Also, in the NY Times forum, the emphasis was on English and foreign languages, where we do see a sharp decline in degrees from the early-70s to the mid-80s, and then a slight rise in the early-90s, then a decline in subsequent years. Your point about overplaying the trend as “recent decades” is only half-correct.

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4jkb4ia 11.23.10 at 9:50 pm

@89: Stanford has a communications major, which I only know because Michelle Wie is in it.
Also, St. Louis University has had a communications department for some time. This is a Jesuit institution.

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4jkb4ia 11.23.10 at 9:57 pm

Boston College! The first thing which came up in the Google search box.

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4jkb4ia 11.23.10 at 9:59 pm

(At SLU, the basketball players are generally clustered in the business school because the philosophy and theology requirements are more extensive in the College of Arts and Sciences)

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Michael Bérubé 11.23.10 at 11:04 pm

Mark, as you well know, I’m OK with a variety of critiques of “theory” and “identity.” But as you also well know, those things enjoyed their greatest influence in the profession in the 1990s — right around the time of that enrollment spike. You can criticize various kinds of literary/cultural theory as specious or oversold or downright pernicious; that seems legit to me. Likewise with the turn to identitarian criticism. What you can’t do, though, is blame these things for enrollment patterns that are, mirabile dictu, largely independent of them — just as they were from 1967 to 1987.

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Michael Bérubé 11.23.10 at 11:17 pm

Oops, almost forgot, Mark. Just for the record:

Reading Plutarch provides young Americans good and bad examples of leadership. Shakespearean tragedy shows them where love goes awry and loyalty holds fast. Emily Dickinson reveals how a few choice words in the right places — ‘And zero at the bone’ — strike home. Monet’s cathedrals unveil a whole new way to see the world. Lose them and the college produces a half-educated graduate. Humanists scoff at this old-fashioned defense, but they’re wrong to assume that others share the cynicism.

Some humanists scoff, sure. Most don’t — including this one. I’ve been using versions of this old-fashioned defense for quite some time now. And best of all, it has the advantage of being true.

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Bloix 11.23.10 at 11:43 pm

Michael, these are arguments for a core curriculum, such as you had at Columbia and I had at Reed. They’re not arguments for the education of specialists in the humanities.

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Harold 11.24.10 at 12:33 am

Why wait for college. Core curriculum works especially well in high school, especially when literature is coordinated with history and languages. Thus, for example, epics and the Bible in freshman year, along with ancient and medieval history. Plays are good in sophomore year, with early modern 16th seventeenth and eighteenth century history. Plus Milton and Pope and perhaps Defoe. Nineteenth century: novels and American history. Twentieth century — more international novels and poetry. A Shakespeare play every year, as well. Teachers can pick individual works to study according to their informed judgement. That’s the way it was done when I went to school and we had a pretty good education. We followed the same plan in French, which was compulsory, at that time for most of us.

But I think if you want to save the humanities — then let us aim for a just, humane, and demilitarized society, with a lot of spending on the arts, libraries, and scholarship.

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Harold 11.24.10 at 3:21 am

In fact, Waldorf education has a core curriculum in elementary school, as well. It is ge-pruft.

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Mark Bauerlein 11.24.10 at 3:45 pm

I concede some guilt for over-arguing the correlation of theory/identity and slipping status for English and foreign languages, Michael. But I’m not so sure that theory/identity matters aren’t as influential any more. In the advanced circles, yes, one sees some traditional (and non-traditional) humanistic arguments surfacing (Felski, Nussbaum, etc.), but if you pore over a wide swath of publishing in English as well as the “expertises” of professors in 2nd- and 3rd-tier departments, as I have for a current research project, the identitiarian focus looks awfully dominant.

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Jonathan Mayhew 11.24.10 at 6:20 pm

It would be pretty delicious to have the elites begin to argue for more traditional defenses of the humanities and have less prestigious institutions be the place where some of the theoretical excesses of the 90s go to die. What is interesting is that the return of the traditional defense is emerging often from fairly prestigious quarters, but I think it could have some echoes in the 2nd and 3rd tier places too.

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