On the Irrelevancy of the Academy
Today, pragmatism is in and therefore the humanities are out. “Where are the immediate benefits?” “What is the payoff?” Questions like these have seemingly assigned the humanities to irrelevance or rather uselessness while the STEM disciplines can come in to take over, with their promise of quick returns and obvious, tangible benefits. While I lament this state of affairs, what I want to do here is not to lament the lack of interest in the humanities. Rather, I want to propose that one reason the humanities currently seem irrelevant is because the field has made itself irrelevant. The very people who should be promoting the humanities, university English and History professors, for example, are most often the very ones who have assigned their disciplines to irrelevance for the public at large. Article after article, book after book, and lecture after lecture, they have quietly written themselves into they obscurity they now currently enjoy.
Now what do I mean by that? What I mean is that as these disciplines have become increasingly specialized (by no means a bad thing at the dissertation level), they have begun to ignore the wider currents that are accessible to the thinking public at large and have therefore assigned themselves to irrelevance. Let’s take history for example.
This morning I received an email from Boston University, which, among other things, carried with it news that enrollment in history courses has been steadily declining at BU for years. To combat this, professors were encouraged to offer “sexy” new course offerings such as the “History of Piracy” (as in pirates; not internet piracy). This apparently helped as that particular course had high enrollment. The article then continued on by praising a new post-graduate researcher who is teaching a class on the “History of Animals” and how we write the history of animals. That particular researcher wrote a dissertation on how animals were used during World War I, and is now taking many of those findings to the undergraduate level. And this, all of this, is precisely the problem.
First, the history of piracy. While the topic might be in itself a fine one (and good perhaps for a graduate seminar), is this the type of course that should be taught about at the undergraduate survey level where students are taking the course to meet general education requirements? How will the life of a biomedical engineering major be substantially enhanced by knowing more about the history of piracy? Perhaps he will have a better historical sensibility about him the next time he goes to see a new Pirates of the Caribbean film, but aside from that, the course seems ill-suited to impact his day to day life and thought. The course is simply too narrow, too specialized, and therefore, too irrelevant for anyone but the academic historian.
Or take the History of Animals, which is simply a more severe case of the same thing. Here specialization has again crept its way into the undergraduate level in a way that is perfectly suited to kill any and all interest in history. Rather than spending a whole semester discussing the use of animals in WWI, why don’t we rather spend the semester talking about WWI in general; its causes, its major turning points, its subsequent affect on the history of the 20th century? Sure, we were all supposed to learn the basics of world history at the high school level, but let’s be honest; how many of us really did? Taking a broad topic like WWI (or perhaps wars of the 20th century in general) and learning its major contours is a subject that has potential to be deeply impactful for any student if well taught and if the students are given ample space to think for themselves.
All of this to say, the academy is a self-perpetuating piece of machinery. New academics need to write new dissertations on previously under-researched subjects, then they need to write additional narrowly focused monographs in the “publish or perish” mentality needed to gain tenure. Whatever the relative merits of such a machine, my point is simply that the sort of narrow specialization with which academics are trained to think (as it is necessary for groundbreaking research) is not something that should be brought into the undergraduate classroom. What we need is not more classes on the history of cuisine in early modern Italy or on the rhetoric of dissent in Tudor England, rather undergraduate general education level courses need to focus on the broad strokes, helping students to learn how to read primary sources discerningly and to think for themselves, all the while being guided by the professor to think through the implications of what they are learning for today. Until this happens again, humanities professors are simply asking to be relegated to the margins of the modern academy.
In my next post I’ll look at a professor who has bucked the current trend of narrowed, specialized topics, and has thereby seen huge classroom success. And all of this without needing to tailor any “sexy” new courses to the latest whims of Hollywood.