Is it the economy, Stupid?

It’s a popular drumbeat – the reason for the declining enrollment in college-level humanities classes is the deepening and largely imbalanced materialism of modern society.  Humanities don’t make one rich, so young people drift to more profitable majors.  The higher-education institutions respond to this trend by refurbishing the humanity courses they offer.  Sometimes whole departments get to be eliminated; sometimes just courses are cut or curtailed.  Such policies make it easier for students to skip the humanities.  As a result, society becomes less and less versed in critical thinking and all other benefits humanities bestow. 

And so on, and so forth.  The drumbeat comes from all angles, and in fact, it is the right thing to say if you are an Humano-Academese.   But oὐ μέντοι μὰ Δία, as Socrates Sensei would put it, sometimes the drums seem to beat from the very marketplace they denounce…

Martha Nussbaum is a prolific thinker who’s written on every new pop subject under the sun.  Her latest endeavor is a book called Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (links to reviews/responses below).  In her commencement address at Colgate University, she presented a summary of her argument.  Below is an excerpt:

Our American democracy, like ancient Athens, is prone to hasty and sloppy reasoning, and to the substitution of invective for real deliberation. With the decline in newspapers and the increasing influence of an impoverished talk-radio culture of sound bites, we need Socrates in the classroom more urgently than ever. Critical argument gives people a way of being responsible: when politicians bring simplistic rhetoric their way, they won’t just accept it or reject it on the basis of a prior ideological commitment, they will investigate and argue, thinking for themselves, and learning to understand themselves. And when argument, not mere partisan feeling, takes the lead, people will also be able to interact with one another in a more reasonable way. Instead of seeing political disputes as occasions to score points for their own side, they will probe, investigate; they will learn where the other person’s argument shares common ground with their own; all this conduces to respect and understanding.

Sweeping generalizations sell well, but not to prospective students.  In fact, students like me tend to tune out.  I am far from sure that taking a large number of higher-ed humanities courses automatically results in better critical thinking outside the classroom.  Or that “the masses” are uniformly stupid unless they take college-level humanities courses.  Real-life forums provide much more spontaneous, and free-for-all, education.   The Silver and Black Pride blog, for instance – you find there genuine and passionate discussion on topics ranging from football to politics to religion, Plato, great books, films, music and back.  It is a Socratic dialogue at its best, there are no grades, and yet you get constant feedback about your progress. 

Critical thinking and Socratic dialogue are buzzwords in business management, by the way.   The best form of Socratic dialogue, according to the linked study, is one in which there is no Socrates guiding the discussion.  Problem-based inquiry at its finest.

Reviews of Martha Nussbaum’s new book:

It would be great if the ‘liberal arts’ approach would be radical untimely and be despised as a breading ground for young dissents, wild talent, impossible personalities. Instead it is just irrelevant. The liberal arts approach claims that their students do not derail, drop out and become better people. This could be the case. But what they lack is a basic interest in what’s going in society. They lack passion for the politics and culture of our fucked-up techno-society. Many of them are indifferent, if not hostile, to programming and code. […]Instead of fighting for ‘liberal arts’ as antidote I would argue to bring out, to play out, the technological in the humanities, and stop seeing them as opposites.

  • Troy Jollimore’s review of Martha’s new book
  • And this one, which cites a professor who disagrees that the market is responsible for the decline of humanities and who blames the humanists’ lousy teaching strategies instead.


6 thoughts on “Is it the economy, Stupid?

  1. Great topic! I didn’t check out the links yet, but I am interested. Especially, the one that discusses the blame game. That is a real chicken and egg argument. It seems to me that our system funnels people away from humanities. It very well could be that the teaching is the same, but that the pull of capitalism is greater, which serves to mute the tug of humanities.

    Also, great point about the feedback. It is through that kind of active discussion in which ideas really seem to advance. Tying in with something we have talked about over there lately, this fact makes it seem even more worthless when people take such things personally and allow it to effectively end a real conversation as people put up their walls of pride or ego.

    Good Work. You are a prolific blogger.

    1. Thanks, Noontide, for your thoughtful response – I wish more people went to the Silver and Black Pride to see examples of spontaneous and very authentic Socratic dialogue.

      About the market’s influence on the humanities – chicken and egg, indeed. It may be true that college students choose more pragmatic courses in order to graduate and get jobs faster. But a great number of those non-humanities majors pursue humanities later in life, and on the side. So, it seems to me that the drumbeat is largely motivated by market considerations: lower enrollment in the humanities means academic cuts for universities, so let’s scare everyone with the (false) argument that unless they enroll in those courses, they will be unable to live in a democratic fashion. As if taking four years of humanities courses only makes you democratic…

      Does this make sense? I am very interested in further discussion.

      1. I completely agree. Who thinks that a classroom is the best way to learn humanities anyways? It is more about a desire to learn it and when this desire is there, the learning will happen in any and all forums.

        As Marvin Minsky said, “With all the money that we are throwing away on humanities and art – give me that money and I will build you a better student.”

        Of course the danger is, if no one is teaching these things, will people create the thirst for them? I had a middle english class once. I was already getting into humanities anyway, but my teacher had such a great passion and made the pieces come alive that I’ll never forget the lessons learned.

        Maybe the focus should be put on humanities at a younger age. Leave the higher education to a more precise, practical and efficient training platform. All of which are things I would have never been interested in at that age. Hahaha I am going to stop this reply now and see what you have to say as I got a wild tangent about to burst.

        1. Younger age, huh. Well – this is what my father and paternal grandmother tried with me. I was put on a strict diet of Great Books, classical music, logical reasoning, singing and other lofty pursuits. Summer vacations were a nightmare because whatever I’d do, my father wanted me to write about it. I HATED IT WITH PASSION. Does it leave traces. Sure, but it took me decades to shake off the disgust. I have one single favorite teacher – my math teacher in high school who did some magic so that I actually came to understand what I was doing. None of my humanities teachers was any good.

        2. In light of your fine example perhaps the teaching should be adjusted a bit to account for the age and interest of the individual. As with anything, to force something upon someone is going to cause resentment and some sort of rebellion.

          My dad also found different ways to get me to write. I did summer journals and my punishments were typically ended with an essay of what I had learned.

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