In the drift away from the humanities, we risk losing something essential in ourselves.
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Curmudgeon? or Truthsayer?
Is this the proverbial "bitter pill" we resent being forced to swallow? Or, is it a call to action?
Personally, I choose to take it as a call to action in the same sense that Jonathon Swift's very bitter "A Modest Proposal" force-fed us a quite distastefully bitter pill of reality.
It's the difference between "Ain't that the truth!" and "What can we do about this?"
Of interest to me is that we're not talking about mediocre students here or perhaps a mediocre embittered professor. Both the author and his subjects have "credentials." These are Harvard, Yale, Bard Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia-types.
We know everyone of them "aced" their standardized tests and Entrance exams don't we?
In a sense, the second paragraph puts the situation quite clearly. We've done an excellent job teaching them how to,...
"... assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that."
It's not that this is what we taught. But, it is what too many thought was the main reason for studying great literature. At least it's what many thought was all they needed to know to pass the test.
But, what we apparently haven't done so well is teach them the skills associated with,...
"writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them."
I could not help but wonder about the conclusions drawn by the article's author, all of which contain truth. Yet there seems to be an elephant in the room of analysis.
The author suggests that,...
"There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science)."
It's an easy conclusion to swallow when it's "them," not us at the heart of the problem.
I certainly can not argue that there is an excessive focus on short-term reward.
"What's your major?"
"Really? Can you make any money with that major?"
Kind of reminds me of the Wall Streeters who consider immediate impact on their quarterly bonuses a much higher priority than long term success of the companies they choose to sell shares in or even the success of their own clients' investments.
But, the author goes on to say,...
"Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply."
When the author goes on to suggest that we who teach the humanities do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter and that it is we who do a bad job of teaching the humanities, then the conclusion is not so easy to swallow. Nobody likes it when responsibility for "falling short" lands in our own laps.
Of course, I still believe that the vast majority of my colleagues in the English departments across the country are doing darned good work. Most go far beyond, extremely far beyond, any reasonable expectation the public might have for "giving it their all."
But, there are those within our profession as there are in any profession, who even when well-intended, don't do well helping their students connect the value of the humanities to 21st century hazily focused perceptions of value in their students' eyes.
There's little doubt that the among the "best of the best" students, too many of them are simply best because the are better at figuring out what will be on the test. Understanding why the "right answer" is the right answer is not as important as knowing the the teacher or test designer has determined to be the right answers.
And then there is that disturbing sentence from the article,...
"They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax."
And I can't help but wonder whether the author was suggesting that today's college students, even the elite, are graduating as ventriloquists (masters of misrepresentation) or as the ventriloquists' dummies (manipulated block heads)?
Certainly, they are not stupid people. Stupid people rarely get into such prestigious universities; or if they do, they rarely survive long without having "somebody's" finger on the scale.
Ironically, though the author bemoans the failure of his students to appreciate the value of the humanities, perhaps it is because they have spent their time mastering the skills associated with our attempts to measure what they have "learned." And, we really haven't developed sufficiently sophisticated attempts to measure what the have learned that can distinguish between what they have learned and what they can "appear to have learned."
And, that's not the test we hope they do well on in the real world.
In actuality, the author's students have mastered what we measure.
For some odd reason, it all reminds me of one of my favorite lines from an old Jean Shepherd story. I'll have to paraphrase, but it was from a story where Ralph, his constant character, is sitting in study hall. He suggests something ot the effect that, "the study hall teachers was pretending to care about what we were pretending to do."
Whattya say we worry a bit less about creating English Majors and a bit more about creating "humane beings"?