Trustees | General Education

Chiseling Away at the Humanities

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  February 28, 2010 by Carolyn Foster Segal

At last we have the answer to the question that comes up at every one of my college’s faculty meetings: Where have the liberal arts gone? China! It seems that China, concerned about creativity and critical thinking, will be handling them from now on—and in small classes, too, at least according to The Chronicle’s own “Less Politics, More Poetry.” Of course, the liberal arts in America aren’t really dead (yet); they are alive and recognized in business schools, reports Lane Wallace in “Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School?” in The New York Times. It’s only at small liberal-arts colleges where they seem to be disappearing.

At one of the many meetings on my campus last fall, I overheard someone refer to the liberal-arts courses offered for traditional students as “the dessert.” For a moment I thought that might be an improvement on a former president’s epithet for the humanities—a “slough of despond.” In fact, it’s far worse—it’s an alarming metaphor—for “dessert” is peripheral to the main meal; it’s a nonessential decadent luxury. “Dessert” is one of the first things to go for those enrolled in the college’s noncredit health-and-wellness program.

Our English program has already been put on a rather stringent diet; our menu of courses is small. And sometimes, even after a student has enrolled in an upper-level course that she needs to complete her major, she is told that it has been canceled because not enough people ordered it.

In retrospect, “slough of despond” was the better phrase for a number of reasons. It suggested that we could still climb up to the English major’s equivalent of John Bunyan’s Celestial City—a realm where everyone’s busily engaged in writing and literature classes. It also suggests not only a level of conversational cleverness but a point about shared culture: The former president, a former comp-lit major, was making a literary allusion, and even mired in our slough, we all got it.

We’ve been working on the two-year rotation for the English program; the joke in the department is that it should be called the two-month rotation, because it seems as though that’s how often we rework it. Sisyphus, not Bunyan’s Christian, seems to be our role model. The precipitating event for this newest revision is the anticipated return of an administrator to a teaching slot in the department. Our director has suggested that we use this occasion to reflect on the program and to create a document that will, in fact, last longer than two years.

We have, of course, approached each revision in that same spirit—best summed up as a mixture of hope and despair. Only this time the stakes seem higher, for our numbers, in terms of majors and minors, are lower—roughly half what they were just five years ago.

In my department and on our campus, we have talked about our low English numbers as a temporary condition; until that dessert metaphor cropped up, we’d been hearing phrases like “working on achieving a balance.” But according to William M. Chace, in the Autumn 2009 issue of The American Scholar, that condition may be permanent. In “The Decline of the English Department,” Chace describes reductions in students majoring in English and other related humanities fields: Between 1970-71 and 2003-4, the share of all bachelor’s recipients majoring in English dropped from 7.6 percent to 3.9 percent, and the actual number of degrees awarded declined as well. “The numbers will continue in a steady downward spiral,” he says, if nothing is done to stop the disintegration.

Chace explains that there are forces “both external and internal,” including the rise of public institutions, changes in the student population, and concerns about money—from both “the consumer’s point of view about future earnings” and the administration’s point of view—but that at the root “is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.” Chace faults the departments themselves, who have “substitute[d] for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations.”

He concludes that the momentary—and it was momentary—Golden Age of English, which ran from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, may very well not come again.

Beyond anxiously counting up numbers of classes canceled and numbers of lost students, what can be done? Chace and my department aren’t analyzing numbers and approaches in isolation, for we’re not alone in this existential struggle. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Stanley Fish—and everyone who responded to Fish’s three-part New York Times blog post “What Should Colleges Teach?,” which was a response to the latest white paper of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities”—have weighed in on curricular construction, too.

It’s clear not only that we are at an academic crossroad but also that debates about management of curriculum and liberal studies versus professional studies are part of a larger conundrum: For even while our entering students are being told that everyone needs to go to college, anti-intellectualism is prized. The evidence of this is clear—in Sarah Palin’s faux-political pronouncements, in the recent spate of articles on the price of textbooks, in the administrator’s metaphor.

Let’s start with Chace’s premise: The golden age is gone; the major is diminished. What remains is service—not in a pejorative sense—but as a mission. The first thing that English programs can do is recognize that they are already service departments; the first thing that administrations and boards can do is recognize that they must support meaningful service in the humanities. For all of our talk about the uses of assessment, we have fallen into the trap of an either-or mentality—either you show that you have a healthy major or you cut everything down to a bare-bones curriculum.

This is what students at my small college, whose mission statement stresses the liberal arts, are now required to take from my department’s offerings: one semester of freshman writing, one follow-up course designated as “Writing-2,” and two courses from humanities and history (thus, two courses from English, history, philosophy, communication studies, and foreign languages—we offer only Spanish—and students’ selections must come from two different fields). It’s simply inadequate.

One argument that comes up at faculty meetings is that students don’t like the liberal-arts core. But until we complete our transformation to a trade school, we need to gently point out to students that if they are choosing to go to college, then we will be making and upholding some curricular requirements.

Students tell me that they don’t like to write: That’s understandable. Writing is indeed hard work, and driving their complaints is fear. “But what better place to practice it,” I ask my students, “than here?” For the simple key is practice. The writing of most of my incoming students is appalling. They find producing a short essay almost insurmountably difficult. They produce sentences that are unreadable, using constructions and punctuation clearly born from despair. Their vocabulary is cripplingly limited; they regularly leave off the endings of verbs and adverbs. Their paragraphs, papers, and essay exams give little evidence of logical thought or synthesis.

Many of my students don’t read well, and they tell me quite cheerfully that they don’t like to read. Some can’t name a single novel that they’ve read before coming to college; only a few read the (online) newspaper regularly. It has become nearly impossible to make a recognizable cultural reference or allusion. That, then, is our starting point.

Chace points out that “the English department has one sturdy lifeline. … It is responsible for teaching composition,” and this “work, while crucial, is demeaned.” The key words there are “crucial” and “demeaned”—the introductory core writing/English/history courses should be the meat and potatoes—not the dessert.

Entering students need at least two semesters of basic writing instruction, followed by one to two semesters of additional intensive writing courses. Secretary Duncan wants to see more content-intensive courses for education majors, and all elementary-education students should be required to declare a second major in a liberal-arts-content area. Failing that, they need to take those chronological surveys that Chace sees as essential. Beginning-level surveys in American, British, and world literature, along with surveys of history and art, are imperative for traditional students and students returning for teaching certification. We need to prepare our education students to inform and inspire their students.

Furthermore, while those courses should include writing, they should not be made to carry the designation “writing intensive.” A single course, even if offered in the traditional mode of 14 weeks, as opposed to an accelerated version, cannot deliver both adequate survey coverage and the intensive writing instruction that most students need. Along with the surveys and writing courses, let’s require more courses in mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, and statistics) as well. Each semester, I’ve taken precious class time to review the fundamentals of “literary math” (If Walden is 155 years old, when did Thoreau publish this book? If such-and-such character was born in 1950, why was the military draft a concern for him?) and to review fractions and percentages (how to score your classmate’s 10-question quiz in 10 minutes or less; our first try usually takes a good 20 to 30 minutes). This is, after all, the age of assessment.

Students in other professional and preprofessional service programs don’t necessarily need those literary surveys; as Fish argues in Part 1 of “What Should Colleges Teach?,” a course devoted to a single period or genre may be as instructive as a survey. The object is to engage students and to introduce them to the skill, and pleasure, of thoughtful reading.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I have watched our upper-level offerings diminish to the point that our course rotation resembles that of a two-year technical school rather than of the liberal-arts education that our home page—for now—promises.

The halcyon days of large crowds of students devoting four years of undergraduate school to reading great works may be part of a rapidly receding past, but we cannot see this as an all-or-nothing prospect. Reading and writing require exposure and practice. Colleges that regard such courses as peripheral or inessential luxuries are teaching a whole generation of students the wrong lesson.

Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor of English at Cedar Crest College.


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