Goodbye, Humanities

by William Skink

I graduated from the University of Montana in 2003 with an English degree. 12 years later, the humanities at UM are being directly threatened by the steady enrollment decline. It turns out that attacking humanities is not just a local problem, it’s a trend that’s been going on for years. From the link:

As rising tuition and student debt make prospective income a bigger part of choosing a major, humanities disciplines such as philosophy and history are under attack in favor of such fields as engineering and business, which students, parents and policymakers like because they offer jobs and salaries that justify the cost of university tuition.

“Higher education has really pressed this idea that if you have a college education, you’ll make more,” says Ray, who is an economist by training. That strategy has backfired, he says. “Shame on us. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the next step is, which major pays the most.”

That question is now driving a debate over the very purpose of higher education—whether colleges and universities exist to teach people general knowledge, or to train them for specific jobs.
It’s not just an academic conversation. Only 8 percent of students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967.

Worried that enrollment in these subjects will continue to slip, university officials say entire departments could disappear. And they contend that what would be lost is not just general literacy, but exactly what employers say they really need: the kind of educations that teach students how to think, innovate, communicate, work in teams and solve problems.

I’ve been thinking about the value of my education recently. Did I develop useful critical thinking skills to help me work in teams and solve problems, or am I just a useful idiot prone to irrational anger? Arguing the latter, here’s the opinion of an English teacher:

There are moments when I really wish that my brilliant Political Science professor from my days at Carroll were still alive, so I could have his insight about what seems to be the increasing irrationality of American politics. Parties like the Know Nothings made sense in an era before universal literacy and public education, and Americans from the times of the witch trials, if not before, have shown a penchant for accepting irrational conspiratorial ideas, but it seems like many Americans are even more prone to accepting the most absurd ideas as fact and embracing increasingly irrational explanations for events on the world stage. We’re all familiar with the TEA Party crowd who believe that the president is a Muslim, and that the government is poisoning us with chemtrails, but it’s a phenomenon not limited to the right.

Just as those conservatives are bizarrely more likely to be wrong and believe they are right, there seems to be a resurgence of people who present themselves as the “enlightened left,” who use the Internet to disseminate increasingly shrill and irrational claims about the nature of the world. You can usually spot them in the wild by their reliance on entirely absurd sources, their credulous acceptance of the most juvenile conspiracy theory, their use of words like “sheeple,” and their fondness for pseudonyms, no doubt chosen to protect them from the police state that is watching their 60 hit a day site. And just like the members of the ill-informed reactionary right, they respond to criticism with anger and accusations that are typically the hallmark of people whose defensiveness hides the knowledge that they probably know less than they think they do.

I find it ironic that an English teacher is so invested in depicting my opinions as shrill and irrational. I appreciate the effort, though, because it got me thinking about a short story by Charlotte Perkins, titled The Yellow Wallpaper. Written over a century ago, this story depicts how women’s physical and emotional complaints were treated by the male-dominated medical world. Here is a quick quote from a teacher about the story:

I just taught Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” to my College students, informing them that hysteria was a nervous condition that rendered women incapacitated and fragile during the Victorian Era. The entire medical industry, comprised of men, took women’s physical and emotional complaints and told them it was all in their soft and feminine heads. When Gilman wrote this short story, she had been suffering from postpartum depression; she wrote it to attack the medical industry and the specific physician that prescribed a rest-cure for her illness, which almost drove her to insanity.

Defining hysteria (an illness that was only attributed to women because it was believed to have been caused by the uterus) and society’s willingness to prescribe illnesses and diseases upon women’s minds and bodies as a means of controlling them, I gave my students the following assignment:

Think about some of the mental/physical illnesses attributed to men. What do these illnesses imply about the nature of men?

Think about the illnesses attributed to women. What do these illnesses imply about the nature of women?

How are the differences in male illnesses and female illnesses used to define or label each gender? Do you think that these illnesses are legitimate, or imposed upon us to define and limit us?

Obviously, I am not a woman. I am a privileged white male with opinions that clearly some people vehemently disagree with. But it’s worth thinking about, especially as the humanities disappear and methods of thought control accelerate.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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12 Responses to Goodbye, Humanities

  1. steve kelly says:

    You have become an intolerable. But why?

    What I have noticed is that Don and many of his “tribe” talk a good, highly subjective, line about “rational” and “irrational” ideas. But all this is jibber-jabber because it lacks context — it fails to confront the effect of real power on politics, policy and rationality. Power determines rationality. Power also causes and perpetuates sexism, racism, classism and the quality of education at U.of M.

    Your “thought crime” is your questioning, even challenging, TPTB. In any functioning democracy, power must be confronted, challenged, and held accountable. Keep up the good work.

  2. JC says:

    “the increasing irrationality of American politics”

    Really? American politics has always been irrational. What’s rational about Aaron Burr killing Alexander Hamilton in a gun duel, for instance? (Actually, maybe that’s the most rational solution to politics, let the politicians shoot it out.)

    The problem is that when people try to boil everything down to a political problem that can only be solved by rational actors, they are only dealing with the tip of the iceberg. The term “political science” is an oxymoron. When rational actors refuse to look at the irrational nature of human beings, they necessarily will only see part of the problem, and be aggravated that not everybody sees the world in the same way.

    What is happening at the university level is nothing more than a long term goal to load debt on those who are not wealthy enough to pay for an education. And when students know they will leave the university with a bunch of debt, they need to make sure they have a salable degree, or pay the price — literally. Debt slavery is the new wave, a result of the financialization of all aspects of our economy, including knowledge.

  3. Groupthink: A psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

    EmPHAsis added.

  4. Rob Kailey says:

    Hmmm. This, relying on the extensive quotes of others, in defensive response to Pogie who offered his distinct and well argued opinion. Has it occurred to you that on some your points (documented by others, of course) you might be wrong and Don might be right on some of his?

    Your first link is too narrowly focused and draws a biased false dichotomy. Students get to choose where they attend college, and what they are willing to pay. In truth, they still choose what they get out of the years they spend. Marcus ignores the transactional value of a college education and assumes the authority of a university to set an educational path. His treatise ignores the input of the student in her own education, both monetary and intellectual. Students today are paying an enormous sum (with radically decreasing input from parents) to ‘get an education’. They expect a return on investment. Despite Marcus’ theories (or yours) students still make a choice to get critical thinking skills, and/or a good job. And here you are being threatened by the choice of others, pretty much just as Pogie described.

    • what exactly was that distinct and well-argued opinion?

    • “… Students still make the choice to get critical thinking skills…”

      This is the first I’ve heard if this. I do not see it going on around me, certainly not at Pogie’s. What educational institution do you refer to? Is it some underground outfit run from a cave by dissidents? Critical thought went underground many decades ago in this land.

      Merely stating that you or Pogie have critical thinking skills does not make it so. It takes a little more rigor. It has to be produced in the pudding. I do not see it.

      • Craig Moore says:

        Mark, I’ve tried to post the following comment at your blog regarding your Don P post.

        ===How incredibly childish and petty… and also wrongheaded on many points. Here’s one: When it comes to “…pissing down on us from his high perch,” you win hands down. Here’s another: You also ban people, most recently it was Swede.

        It keeps disappearing. Like Swede, have you blocked me too as if you were Cowgirl? With this being Thanksgiving, isn’t there anything that warms your soul?

        • Yeah, I know. I deleted it and left a message for you there saying you are not welcome. I suggested you read it before you go off attacking me on someone else’s blog, as you’ve done here.

          Mr. Skink, excuse us for using your space on thsi matter.

        • Craig Moore says:

          Mark, that would only have been possibly if you had posted your message at your blog before reading my comment here that provoked your response at your blog. Sequence of events. Of course such details are rather inconvenient for someone of your superior intellectual talents.

        • Big Swede says:

          Mark really can’t help himself. He suffers greatly from NPD.

          “Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by an over-inflated sense of self-importance, as well as dramatic, emotional behavior that is in the same category as antisocial and borderline personality disorders.[6]

          In addition to these symptoms, the person may display arrogance, show superiority, and seek power.[7] The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder can be similar to the traits of individuals with strong self-esteem and confidence; differentiation occurs when the underlying psychological structures of these traits are considered pathological. Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others, when in reality they have a fragile self-esteem, cannot handle criticism, and often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. Comments and criticisms about others are vicious from sufferers of NPD, in an attempt to boost their own poor self-esteem.[8]-Wiki.

        • Well, either that Swede, or after nine years of blogging, I got tired of having the same conversation with the same people who do not read, cannot think properly, and never move forward.

          But you’re right, it must be something wrong with ME!

        • Craig Moore says:

          Mark, I just left this comment at your blog.

          ====For what it is worth, I don’t feel any anger or other negative emotion towards you. You seem to have the desperate need to have enemies in order to feel relevance and important. That is sad and tragic. You seem set on the course set by Hunter S. Thompson and Hemingway. Perhaps you seek the immortality of choosing when and how you molt the coils of your own existence. I invite you to read Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” before it is too late.===

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