Category Archive 'Humanities'

25 Jul 2016

Fed Up With Humanities-Trained “Experts”

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NeilArmstrong

Michael Ginsberg is fed up with experts trained neither in facts or real skills, but in the Humanities-style “How to Think in General” kind of elite education.

I trained to be an engineer in college and graduate school. When I went to college, I viewed it as job training. School had a purpose, and I had a mission: prepare myself for the working world by developing skills and a vocation. It was hard work: hours upon hours in labs, in libraries working on problem sets, or studying in my dorm room. It wasn’t easy, but I kept going because I believed engineering was one of the most essential disciplines to Americans’ quality of life and the defense of the nation.

Yet throughout my time in school, it always gnawed at me that my fellow classmates in other disciplines—the students of government, political science, and policy, masters of words, theories, and rules—were going to graduate, occupy positions of power, and determine how I would be able to live my life and run my career. Never mind that many of them started their weekends on Thursdays and probably never took a class in the hard sciences while I was sweating away night and day in the engineering library. They were going to grow up and make decisions that would control my life.

I went to an Ivy League school, and the piece of parchment with the school name was going to open the doors to the gilded life that would allow them to, as one of my schoolmates put it, “rule the world.” Use the school name to get the right internships and make the right connections, and the world would open up for them. (Instead, I repeatedly had job interviewers tell me, “I didn’t know your Ivy League school had engineering.”) I resented it deeply.

That resentment dissipated over time, but never quite went away. …

My resentment, long in remission, came back and crystallized in the following thought: Americans are governed by politicians who see fit to reimagine entire sectors of our economy and, indeed, our lives despite having little, if any, experience in the areas of life they seek to reform wholesale. This means Americans, seeing the failures of government from Obamacare to the Veterans Affairs, from the Environmental Protection Agency dumping toxic materials into a Colorado river to the Dodd-Frank regulations strangling local community banks, have had just about enough of their credentialed but utterly inexperienced supposed betters reordering their lives and livelihoods.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to the News Junkie.

26 Oct 2010

“So You Want To Get a PhD in the Humanities”

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“It is important that I go to Yale. They have Harold Bloom.”

Hat tip to Matt McLean and Emmy Chang.

29 Sep 2009

Decline of the English Department

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Willam M. Chace, in the American Scholar, identifies the decline in study of the Humanities in general with the internal collapse of the English Department following the overthrow of the idea of the canon.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.

Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

Consider the English department at Harvard University. It has now agreed to remove its survey of English literature for undergraduates, replacing it and much else with four new “affinity groups”—“Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions,” and “Shakespeares.” The first would examine outside influences on English literature; the second would look at whatever poets the given instructor would select; the third would study various writings (again, picked by the given instructor) resulting from the spread of English around the globe; and the final grouping would direct attention to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Daniel Donoghue, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, told The Harvard Crimson last December that “our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.” And Harvard’s well-known Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt also told the Crimson that the substance of the old survey will “trickle down to students through the professors themselves who, after all, specialize in each of these areas of English literature.” But under the proposal, there would be no one book, or family of books, that every English major at Harvard would have read by the time he or she graduates. The direction to which Harvard would lead its students in this “clean slate” or “trickle down” experiment is to suspend literary history, thrusting into the hands of undergraduates the job of cobbling together intellectual coherence for themselves. Greenblatt puts it this way: students should craft their own literary “journeys.” The professors might have little idea of where those journeys might lead, or how their paths might become errant. There will be no common destination.

As Harvard goes, so often go the nation’s other colleges and universities. Those who once strove to give order to the curriculum will have learned, from Harvard, that terms like core knowledge and foundational experience only trigger acrimony, turf protection, and faculty mutinies. No one has the stomach anymore to refight the Western culture wars. Let the students find their own way to knowledge.


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