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Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities)

Don’t cry for humanities professors at Harvard. True, their share of concentrators (majors) is down from 21 percent in 2003 to 17 percent in 2012. And more worrying, the share of “would be” humanities concentrators has diminished, from 27 percent entering the class of 2006 to 18 percent entering the class of 2016. But Harvard’s numbers are much better than the national numbers; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities nationwide made up only 7.6 percent of the total. It is therefore striking that Harvard’s Division of Arts and Humanities has produced a serious document like The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, compiled by a committee of faculty this academic year and released at the end of May.

I have argued here before that the challenges now confronting higher education, from skepticism about the value of degrees to enthusiasm for massive open online courses, present an opening for proponents of liberal education to reassert themselves. When parents demand rigor, one can do worse than offer the cultivation of judgment through close examination of and reflection upon great works of philosophy, literature, and art that offer conflicting answers to complex, high-stakes questions. When students ask what residential colleges have to offer that they cannot get online, one can do worse than offer a community of inquiry into such works and questions, in which teachers and students meet face to face scrutinize each other’s arguments and interpretations, and through that experience learn how to address difficult, potentially divisive, questions with the aid of others. But I did not foresee that Harvard, which need not worry about how people perceive the value of its degree, and which seems to have positioned itself reasonably well with respect to online education, would make those arguments.

Mapping the Future has several virtues. First, the humanists who put it together are hard on themselves. One of the most damaging statistics in the report, and the one which its writers most emphasize, is that students who come to Harvard intending to study the humanities often change their minds. Eighty-one percent of students who come to Harvard meaning to study the social sciences stick to them, but only 43 percent of Harvard’s would be humanists stick it out. It would have been tempting to blame “philistines” or “pragmatic parents” for the inability of Harvard humanists to keep hold of their young. But in the year of reflection that produced the report, the committee found little reason to place the blame there. “[W]e might do otherwise than blame someone else” and “instead engage in self-scrutiny.” Perhaps one is hearing “the footfall of undergraduate feet away from Humanities concentrations” because humanities professors do not address questions of interest to most undergraduates.

Second, the report proposes to “reaffirm the generalist tradition of undergraduate teaching.” Harvard’s humanities departments have “possibly become too specialized, allowing the research culture of our faculty and graduate constituencies to dominate the general needs of the undergraduate.” Immersion in a discipline, like history or classics, is an important part of undergraduate education, but teachers should teach “beyond their immediate zones of expertise (as some instructors do already)” and even beyond departmentally defined disciplines. Moreover, humanists should cherish the fact that in their classrooms, where learning cannot be completely disentangled from a personal encounter with the text, “the distance between instructor and student” diminishes; “both are on the spot, risking their hands.”

Third, the authors argue that undergraduate teaching can be reinvigorated by revisiting the so-called canon. They appropriately resist simply coronating the “works considered great by tradition,” but affirm that “great art and philosophy will always resist obsolescence.” Our “sense of what constitutes great art will change, but great art itself . . . does not become, better or worse.” The report invites students, whatever their religion, culture, or sex, into the “long and evergreen” tradition of studying great texts, which make demands on our capacity to live with ambiguity and adjudicate disagreements. The authors intimate that such texts are a model for openness from which humanities professors can benefit. Among “the ways we sometimes alienate students from the Humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in the classroom.” There is at least “a kernel of truth in conservative fears of the left-leaning academy.”

While this concession, and the report as a whole, is not by itself grounds for confidence that the present higher education environment favors the case for liberal education, it is grounds for hope. The authors of the report direct their argument primarily to their colleagues at Harvard; but when Harvard talks, people in higher education listen.


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