Is a “starvation diet” the cure for the crisis of the humanities?

Turner_PhilologyIt may seem strange, but as James Turner argues on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Conversations blog, the modern humanities may not be at “death’s door,” as so many commentators imply. He says that a longer view–one that extends back to ancient times–tells us that what we are seeing is a reemergence of a generalist, philological approach to the humanities. Back to Philology indeed!

Turner details the “forgotten origins of the modern humanities,” in much greater detail in his new intellectual history, Philology. You can read a free chapter here [PDF].

Listen to the dire talk around colleges and universities, read op-eds and magazines, and you might think the humanities were in greater danger than the earth’s climate. In fact, despite the overheated rhetoric, the humanities are not at death’s door. Contemporary pressures will more likely push them into a new shape, even ultimately a healthier one.

That claim might seem bizarre. The proportion of college students majoring in the humanities has sunk to an all-time low. Students have turned their backs on art history and literature in favor of studies, like accounting and nursing, that lead directly to jobs. Governors like Florida’s Rick Scott have worked to undercut fields of study not tuned closely to employment. President Obama wants education to stress science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Funds for research in disciplines like history and linguistics are drying up. Congress has already slashed the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and now Rep. Paul Ryan wants to kill it.

Analysts of higher education paint a more ambiguous picture. How many years ago you start counting—either majors or research dollars—determines how gloomy the humanities numbers look. And with more and more Americans going to college only to qualify themselves for work, most time-honored fields of study have taken a hit, not just the humanities. But even at a traditional, elite institution like Stanford, majors in humanities disciplines have fallen so low as to alarm faculty members into unprecedented missionary efforts.

To see how, paradoxically, a starvation diet may rejuvenate the humanities, it helps to take a long view. First of all, the humanities disciplines familiar in American higher education today did not even exist 200 years ago. Sure, in 1814 students learned the Greek and Latin languages, but no discipline called “classics” devoted itself to ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Yes, a college president in that era was likely to lecture on moral philosophy, but the broad range of topics covered by a modern philosophy department had no place in his institution.

Continue reading at The Chronicle of Higher Education web site: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/06/09/yes-the-humanities-are-struggling-but-they-will-endure/