How and Why the Humanities Lost Touch

The new, increasingly common rationale for preserving the humanities in higher education is perhaps most representatively argued in Martha Nussbaum’s recent book, Not For Profit. Here’s what she has to say on the dust jacket:  “We must work to reconnect education to the humanities in order to give students the capacity to be true citizens of their countries and the world.” Aside from the fact that this sounds like the hollow rhetoric of a commencement speech, everything about that exhortation is wrong.

Let me start at the top. Higher education lost touch with the humanities in 1970, if not before. That was the last year in which a majority of U.S. college students graduated with majors in traditional liberal-arts subjects (of which the humanities form the core): philosophy, history, English, foreign languages, etc. So students have been fleeing the humanities as a discipline worth studying for at least two generations.

Where have they been going? Business, which at traditional universities now accounts for 21% of all majors (at community colleges and especially in the burgeoning for-profit higher-education industry, there are no humanities majors and business majors dominate).

Professor Nussbaum expresses the hope that we make students into “complete citizens” and not “little machines.” But the overwhelming evidence is that more and more students want to become “little machines,” or at least little money-making machines. This tendency is corroborated by the survey that UCLA has administered to an enormous number of incoming freshmen since 1966, asking them, among other things, what was most important to them. In the 1971 survey, the top three answers were “to help others who are in difficulty” (68.5%), to become an authority in my field (66%), and “to keep up to date on politics” (57.8%), all values consistent with being a good citizen. In 2001, the same survey found that “being very well off financially” (a distant fifth in 1971) topped the list at 73%. Help others in difficulty had slipped to 61.5%, while “keep up to date with political affairs” had dropped all the way to 28.1%.

That new top goal is consistent with a kind of conservative citizenship that I suspect is very different from what Nussbaum envisions: It entails lowering taxes for millionaires, and making up for the consequent budgetary shortfalls by slashing social services for the poor, privatizing everything in sight, and annihilating all things connected with the humanities—NPR, the NEH, the NEA.

Today’s undergraduates want to be rich, and so they will strenuously resist any effort to resuscitate the humanities, since the humanities have long been associated with liberal politics (at least as far back as William Bennett’s 1984 white paper, “To Reclaim a Legacy,” and Lynn Cheney’s stint as director of the NEH). According to the popular website, 161 of America’s major universities have a majority of students who identify as conservative, and who would thus likely endorse the Ryan budget, which would entail the obliteration of government support for the humanities.

Nussbaum seems to be out of touch with the desires of America’s students and with their political allegiances as well. Either that or she imagines colleges of humanities as re-education camps. But she’s hardly the only academic making this argument.

Next stop: participation.

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