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 WordPress.com 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.