April 30, 2012
My one objection to Reynold’s op-ed – and it’s an objection to a lot of college talk – is the need to constantly bash supposedly non-utilitarian majors such as English, gender studies, and the like. You know, “the humanities,” as in, oh what a waste of time. As a proud English major (surrounded by a bunch of them at Reason, by the way), I’ll save a full-throated defense of my major for another post. Let me just suggest that majoring in literary and cultural studies wasn’t just interesting in and of itself, it helped equip me with a series of analytic and expressive tools that have helped me support myself since I was 18. And as my older son gets ready to start college in the fall, I’m hoping he picks a course of study that is first and foremost interesting to him.
He’s right, of course. You can learn a lot — even substantive stuff that’s useful — in any course, potentially. I was mocking “gender studies” classes, but even those can potentially be valuable. I took a Law And Sexuality course in law school and it was actually very substantive, and was one of three courses that let me give a detailed off-the-top-of-my-head black letter law answer to a question my judge asked when I was clerking after law school. (The other two classes, underscoring this point, were Law, Science & Technology and International Human Rights Law). It’s also true that there’s a massive shortage of people with the traditional liberal arts skills of reading, writing, and thinking analytically.
But the problem with the humanities isn’t an inherent one — you could even teach a stimulating and intellectually rich course on the Occupy Movement — but has to do with execution, and here’s where the comparison with STEM comes in. Very few people complete a math or engineering major without learning a lot of math and engineering, but it’s entirely possible to major in the humanities and never learn to read, write, or reason with any rigor. The problem isn’t inherent to the subject matter, it’s a symptom of professorial self-indulgence and laziness, together with the lack of external scrutiny, a problem that is much, much worse in humanities than in STEM.
As the higher education bubble bursts, we’ll see a lot more of that scrutiny, and I expect things will improve — though not without a lot of squawking from those whose rice bowls get dinged along the way.