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Humanities in academia are in crisis, expert says

Posted on December 11, 2015

The humanities in modern-day American higher education are in crisis, thanks in large part to economic factors and pressure from politicians and governments seeking a new labor pool with specific skill sets, said Louis Menand, a Harvard professor and speaker at a Hauenstein Center event December 10. 

"The humanities are fighting a battle right now, and the scene is dire," Menand said. "The present phase of embattlement stems from the recession and arguments about the utility of a liberal education."

During his lecture to a full Loosemore Auditorium, Menand told the crowd that the humanities are in worse shape than they were six years ago when he first wrote a book on the topic, citing economic, demographic and technological changes in society. He suggested that part of the reason it is so hard to institute a general education curriculum is because universities are educating students using a model from the 19th century. 

"Trying to reform the contemporary university is like trying to get on the Internet with a typewriter," Menand said.

Even though humanities are facing criticism from politicians who are pushing more vocational and pre-professional degree programs, including business, medicine, law and the STEM fields, Menand said the humanities still have their place in modern education. He said students who take humanities courses will be better able to apply their specific professional skills to real-world problems because of the breadth of their understanding of the human condition.

"Knowledge is supposed to be about the world, and it doesn't sort itself out along departmental lines," Menand said. "When we teach specific skill sets in silos and monologues, it fails the university's design. In a world of ideas, monologues force us off the cliff of reason."

Menand compared a university education to building a car, saying that at the end of an assembly line, there is a finished product made from requisite parts. 

"In a university, there is no place where all of the pieces are brought together for a final product. Students end up having to do that on their own," Menand said. 

Menand also criticized how professors are taught, and lamented the lack of interest and declining enrollment of undergraduates in the classics and humanities. He also questioned if humanities departments are partly to blame for failing to continue to sufficiently justify their roles.

He concluded his lecture by asserting the importance of a liberal education and its impact on students.

"We would want anyone who goes through a program to become an engineer or who wants to go to Silicon Valley, to take courses in the humanities because it makes them more well-rounded and more successful, but it also gives them a fuller life," Menand said. "It's their only bite at the apple; their only chance."