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March 20 2019

Some Good News for the Humanities

by Charlotte Hays

We've often stood up for the humanities on this blog (here and here, for example).

Mark Bauerlein has a terrific piece over at City Journal on two programs to promote studying the humanities in college--one more promising than the other-- headlined "Wisdom First, Job Skills Second."

Just for the record, humanities majors made up a scant 12 percent of those receiving bachelor's degrees in 2015. Three quarters  of college English departments  have seen diminishing numbers in the last five years. This is sad news for those of us who believe in the humanities.

To counter this trend, Bauerlein reports, the D.C.-based National Humanities Alliance has come up with a digital "Humanities Toolkit" that puts forward “learning outcomes and performance metrics” to show why the humanities are a good bet.

Bauerlein finds the project lacking in (well) the humanities:

Yet the toolkit makes not one reference to Milton, Beethoven, Bernini, Cervantes, Virgil, Ralph Ellison, or any other notable names; the great books, artworks, and compositions don’t figure in the presentation. The humanities instill critical thinking, workforce readiness, and empathy, the NHA insists—but those virtues get developed, presumably, in humanities course work, through the direct study of Thucydides, Dante, the Civil War, War and Peace, and so on. Why not highlight those things?

The NHA seems to believe that students need utilitarian justifications for studying fields like philosophy and art history. To market the humanities, on this view, we must play up money and success, and add a few sentimental effusions. It’s not working, though, as the poor enrollment figures underscore.

More to Bauerlein's liking is a Great Books-style program at Clemson University. It is called the Lyceum. A nice classical name.The Lyceum admits ten "scholars" every year. Here is what they do:

The Lyceum offers eight courses per semester, taught by six professors. The students take the courses as a group, in a set sequence—for example, “Wisdom of the Ancients” for freshman year, “American Political Thought” for sophomore year, and so on. Participants then meet individually every week with their assigned tutors—professors who engage them in Socratic discussion of the readings. After completing the eight required courses, students earn a political science minor.

A Lyceum certification may soon appear on transcripts and diplomas.

I met some of the students on Clemson’s campus in September. “I heard about this program in high school,” one told me, and “that’s why I came to Clemson.”

“Are the courses tough?” I asked.

“Definitely,” he said with a laugh, “the hardest ones I’ve ever taken.” The three others who joined us nodded. They kept citing the works that inspired them—Anna Karenina, The Closing of the American Mind, Cicero’s On Obligations, and a quote by C. S. Lewis that one took as his motto: “It’s not the remembered past, but the forgotten past that enslaves us.” One of the students was majoring in philosophy, two in English, and one in economics, but I sensed their camaraderie.

I asked if they really found those old books relevant in contemporary America. “Relevant to what?” one remarked, noting that other teachers might insert “pop culture references” to bring the material up to date, “but I don’t need them in the classroom.” Another found it “uplifting” to be in a class that offered a sanctuary from topical affairs.

The posters for the program set the tone. “IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES,” one announces at the top.

The program has exploded in numbers and is attracting applicants with high SAT scores.

This looks to me like a return to the classical education that was at the heart of the university as it developed and that fueled the intellectual life of the West, staffing its institutions for hundreds of years. And, as the title of Bauerlein's article indicates, it put wisdom before skills (which can always be cultivated as needed by wise people).

 



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