In academia’s current climate, student course selection often determines which academic departments expand and, in some cases, which ones close.
While humanities programs often get the short end of the stick, Mark Bauerlein points to evidence that students still crave rigorous study of canonical texts. Students at Oklahoma University flocked to a two-part literature course, which is modeled after W.H. Auden’s renowned and arduous course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature.” Oklahoma’s course is co-instructed by JMC board member Wilfred McClay.
Is This the Hardest Course in the Humanities?
For most of my professional life, the future of the humanities was a conceptual matter. That’s no longer the case. When enrollments are down, majors are down, funding and jobs are down, adjuncts are up, and departments are being closed, abstract debates over which new theory or interdisciplinary vision is on the rise don’t much count. When a formation as renowned as the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University is proposed for shutdown (it later was saved in modified form), we know that the prosperity of the humanities doesn’t rest with people at the top.
No, it depends on the people at the bottom, undergraduates who vote with their feet. If an English department’s chairman tells the dean, “We’ve got to hire someone in this new area of ____,” the dean replies, “But you can’t even get your existing courses half-filled.” If, however, aparent calls and grumbles, “I’m paying lots of money, and my daughter can’t get into any of the English classes she wants,” well, that calls for action.
It’s a situation that few humanities professors are equipped to overcome. Graduate school and assistant professorships don’t impel you to attract freshmen and sophomores. Instead you learn how to impress senior professors. But right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.
The measure of success for the humanities: Do undergraduates want to come?
Mark Bauerlein earned his doctorate in English at UCLA in 1988. He has taught at Emory since 1989, with a two-and-a-half year break in 2003-05 to serve as the Director, Office of Research and Analysis, at the National Endowment for the Arts. Apart from his scholarly work, he publishes in popular periodicals such as The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30 was published in May 2008. He recently co-edited a collection of essays entitled The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism, published in 2015.
Wilfred M. McClay is a member of the Jack Miller Center Board of Directors. He holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. His book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians. McClay received his BA from St. John’s College in Annapolis and his doctoral degree in history from Johns Hopkins University.
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