Easy Chair — From the October 2013 issue

Course Corrections

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To the long list of American institutions that have withered since the dawn of the 1980s — journalism, organized labor, mainline Protestantism, small-town merchants — it may be time to add another: college-level humanities. Those ancient pillars of civilization are under assault these days, with bulldozers advancing from two different directions.

On the one hand, students are migrating away from traditional college subjects like history and philosophy. After hitting a postwar high in the mid-1960s, enrollments in the humanities dropped off sharply, and still show no signs of recovering. This is supposedly happening because recent college grads who chose to major in old-school subjects have experienced more difficulty finding jobs. Indeed, the folly of studying, say, English Lit has become something of an Internet cliché — the stuff of sneering “Worst Majors” listicles that seem always to be sponsored by personal-finance websites.

On the other hand, an impressive array of public figures are eager to give the exodus from the humanities an additional push. Everyone from President Obama to Thomas Friedman knows where public support for education has to be concentrated in order to yield tangible returns both for individuals and for the nation: the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). These are the degrees American business is screaming for. These are the fields of study that will give us “broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, and longer, healthier, lives for all Americans,” as a White House press release puts it.

Where does that leave the humanities, which don’t contribute in any obvious way to national defense or economic prosperity? The management theorist and financier Peter Cohan, addressing unemployment among recent college grads in the pages of Forbes, proposes a course of straightforward erasure: “To fix this problem, the answer is simple enough: cut out the departments offering majors that make students unemployable.” Certain red-state governors seem eager to take up the task. Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina, for example, dismisses gender studies as elitist woolgathering and announces, “I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs.” Governor Rick Scott of Florida declares that “we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” while a panel he convened in 2012 has called for tuition prices to be subsidized for those willing to acquiesce to the needs of business and study practical things. Those who want to study silly stuff like divinity or Latin will have to pay ever more to indulge in their profligate pastimes.

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