Why study the humanities?
A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education
Walter Lippmann, 1941
One reason I want to make the gift (was) to remind young people that the liberal arts are still the traditional highway to great thinking and the organization of a life.
James Michener, appearing on the Sept. 26, 1984, CBS Morning News on the occasion of his $2 million gift to Swarthmore College.
In March 1984 I invited 31 prominent teachers, scholars, administrators, and authorities on higher education to join a Study Group on the State of Learning in the Humanities in Higher Education. The study group held three public meetings during the spring and summer to seek answers to three questions: What is the condition of learning in humanities; why is it as it is; and what, if anything, should be done about it? Our discussion centered on the teaching and learning of the humanities at the baccalaureate level, but we also considered how secondary and graduate education have affected undergraduate education and been affected by it.
The study group was charged with assessing only the state of the humanities, not that of other subjects taught at the college level or higher education generally. That this report does not discuss these other subjects — notably mathematics, the sciences, and social sciences — is in no way a commentary on their importance. They, too, are essential to an educated person but lie outside the mandate of our group.
The members of the study group came from research universities, land grant colleges, co-educational liberal arts colleges, women’s colleges, historically black colleges, two-year colleges, and secondary schools. They included presidents, vice presidents, deans, and professors, as well as officials of educational and scholarly associations, a journalist, a foundation officer, and a school principal. They were, in sum, as diverse as the enterprise of education itself.
As one would expect from such a heterogeneous group of capable, experienced individuals, there was often lively discussion, sometimes debate. Despite our different backgrounds and perspectives, however, we found common ground on a number of important points. The study group’s discussions were aided by four kinds of information:
- Detailed descriptions of graduation requirements at 15 colleges and universities representative of a diversity of institutions.
- Reports prepared by study group members on the humanities in secondary education, two-year colleges, and graduate schools.
- Papers written by individual members of the study group recommending ways to improve teaching and learning in the humanities.
- Data from several national studies and surveys pertaining to undergraduate education and to the humanities in general.
In this report I offer my assessment, based on these meetings, of the state of learning in the humanities in higher education. Although the report is informed to no small degree by the work of the study group, the responsibility for authorship belongs to me. Members of the group were shown a draft of the report and asked to comment on it. From their responses, it is clear that they concur with the report’s general thrust and with its particular points.
The study group was convened at this particular moment because the time is right for constructive reform of American education. Over the past two years, most of the national attention has been directed to elementary and secondary education. This scrutiny, epitomized by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, has contributed to a number of long overdue changes, with state and local governments leading the way. Higher education has largely escaped the public’s eye except for the National Commission on Student Financial Assistance and occasional studies, commissions, and appeals by higher education specialists. This situation should and will change. Indeed, it has already begun to change with the recent publication of the report from the National Institute of Education’s Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education and forthcoming report of the Association of American Colleges on the quality of the baccalaureate degree. With more than half of all high school graduates now going on to some form of postsecondary education, the public — parents, employers, alumni, and the students themselves — is beginning to ask, and has the right to ask, whether today’s colleges and universities are offering to America’s youth an education worthy of our heritage.
This report has five sections. The first, “Why study the humanities?,” explores briefly the question of what the humanities are and why they are important to an educated person. The second section, “How should the humanities be taught and learned?,” offers the study group’s and my thoughts on what constitutes an appropriate education in the humanities. The third section, “How well are the humanities being taught and learned on the nation’s campuses?,” compares the achievable to the actual, again drawing heavily from the study group’s discussions. The fourth section, “The challenge to academic leadership,” discusses the role of college presidents and other academic officials in strengthening the place of the humanities. The fifth and final section offers some thoughts on how colleges and universities might do a better job in transmitting the accumulated wisdom of our civilization.
I want to thank the members of the study group for their hard work, their inspired discussions at our meetings, the thoughtful papers they submitted for consideration and discussion, and their helpful suggestions in reviewing a draft of this report. I especially want to thank Daniel Schecter of the Endowment for heading up the staff effort on this project.
Although more than 50 percent of America’s high school graduates continue their education at American colleges and universities, few of them can be said to receive there an adequate education in the culture and civilization of which they are members. Most of our college graduates remain short changed in the humanities — history, literature, philosophy, and the ideals and practices of the past that have shaped the society they enter. The fault lies principally with those of us whose business it is to educate the students. We have blamed others, but the responsibility is ours. Not by our words but by our actions, by our indifference, and by our intellectual diffidence we have brought about this condition. It is we the educators — not scientists, business people, or the general public — who too often have given up the great task of transmitting a culture to its rightful heirs. Thus, what we have on many of our campuses is an unclaimed legacy, a course of studies in which the humanities have been syphoned off, diluted, or so adulterated that the students graduate knowing little of their heritage.
In particular, the study group was disturbed by a number of trends and developments and higher education:
- Many of our colleges and universities have lost a clear sense of the importance of the humanities and the purpose of education, allowing the thickness of their catalogs to substitute for vision and a philosophy of education.
- The humanities, and particularly the study of Western civilization, have lost their central place in the undergraduate curriculum. At best, they are but one subject among many that students might be exposed to before graduating. At worst, and too often, the humanities are virtually absent.
- A student can obtain a bachelor’s degree from 75 percent of all American colleges and universities without having studied European history, from 72 percent without having studied American literature or history, and from 86 percent without having studied the civilizations of classical Greece and Rome.
- Fewer than half of all colleges and universities now require foreign language study for the bachelor’s degree, down from nearly 90 percent in 1966.
- The sole acquaintance with the humanities for many undergraduates comes during their first two years of college, often in ways that discourage further study.
- The number of students choosing majors in the humanities has plummeted. Since 1970 the number of majors in English has declined by 57 percent, in philosophy by 41 percent, in history by 62 percent, and in modern languages by 50 percent.
- Too many students are graduating from American colleges and universities lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge about the history, literature, art, and philosophical foundations of their nation and their civilization.
- The decline in learning in the humanities was caused in part by a failure of nerve and faith on the part of many college faculties and administrators, and persists because of a vacuum in educational leadership. A recent study of college presidents found that only two percent are active in their institutions’ academic affairs.
In order to reverse the decline, the study group recommended:
- The nation’ s colleges and universities must reshape their undergraduate curricula based on a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, regardless of major, and on the study of history, philosophy, languages, and literature.
- College and university presidents must take responsibility for the educational needs of all students in their institutions by making plain what the institution stands for and what knowledge it regards as essential to a good education.
- Colleges and universities must reward excellent teaching in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions.
- Faculties must put aside narrow departmentalism and instead work with administrators to shape a challenging curriculum with a core of common studies.
- Study of the humanities and Western civilization must take its place at the heart of the college curriculum.
Why study the humanities?
The federal legislation that established the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 defined humanities as specific disciplines: “language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology: comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts”; and “those aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods.” But to define humanities by itemizing the academic fields they embrace is to overlook the qualities that make them uniquely important and worth studying. Expanding upon a phrase from Matthew Arnold, I would describe the humanities as the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about human experience. The humanities tell us how men and women of our own and other civilizations have grappled with life’s enduring, fundamental questions: What is justice? What should be loved? What deserves to be defended? What is courage? What is noble? What is base? Why do civilizations flourish? Why do they decline?
Kant defined the essence of the humanities in four questions: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is man? These questions are not simply diversions for intellectuals or playthings for the idle. As a result of the ways in which these questions have been answered, civilizations have emerged, nations have developed, wars have been fought, and people have lived contendedly or miserably.
If ideas are important, it surely follows that learning and life are poorer without the humanities. Montaigne wrote:
A pupil should be taught what it means to know something, and what it means not to know it; what should be the design and end of study; what valor, temperance, and justice are, the difference between ambition and greed, loyalty and servitude, liberty and license; and the marks of true and solid contentment.
Further, the humanities can contribute to an informed sense of community by enabling us to learn about and become participants in a common culture, shareholders in our civilization. But our goal should be more than just a common culture — even television and comics can give us that. We should, instead, want all students to know a common culture rooted in civilization’s lasting vision, its highest shared ideals and aspirations, and its heritage. Professor E. D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia calls the beginning of this achievement “cultural literacy” and reminds us that “no culture exists that is ignorant of its own traditions.” As the late philosopher Charles Frankel once said, it is through the humanities that a civilized society talks to itself about things that matter most.
How should the humanities be taught and learned?
Mankind’s answers to compelling questions are available to us through the written and spoken word — books, manuscripts, letters, plays, and oral traditions — and also in non-literary forms, which John Ruskin called the book of art. Within them art expressions of human greatness and of path those and tragedy. In order to tap the consciousness and memory of civilization one must confront these texts and works of art.
The members of the study group discussed at length the most effective ways to teach the humanities to undergraduates. Our discussion returned continually to two basic prerequisites for learning in the humanities: good teaching and a good curriculum.
Good teaching is at least as essential in humanities as in other fields of learning. In this connection, it is critical to point out that of all undergraduate credit hours taken in the humanities, 87 percent are taken in the freshman and sophomore years. Because non-humanities majors account for the largest part of these credit hours, courses taken at the introductory level are the first and only collegiate exposure to the humanities for many students. Therefore, we should want to extend to these students the most attractive invitation to the humanities possible. This requires teachers who can make the humanities live and who can guide students through the landscape of human thought.
Just as students can be drawn to the humanities by good teachers, they can be chased off by poor ones. “Students come to learning through their teachers,” wrote Oberlin College Dean Robert Longsworth, “and no list of great works nor any set of curricular requirements can do the work of a good teacher.” Although it can take many forms, we all know what poor teaching is. It can be lifeless or tendentious, mechanical or ideological. It can be lacking in conviction. Perhaps most commonly, it can fail to have a sense of the significance of the material it purports to study and teach. It can bore and deaden where it means to quicken and elevate. Giving one example, Harvard Professor David Riesman pointed out that poor teaching can masquerade as good teaching when it “invites students to join a club of sophisticated cynics who are witty, abrasive, and sometimes engrossing; many teachers in the humanities parade and glorify their eccentricities, and only on reflection and at some distance does one realize that they are really lifeless.”
What characterizes good teaching in humanities? First, and foremost, a teacher must have achieved mastery of the material. But this is not enough; there must also be engagement. Professor William Arrowsmith of Emory University describe good teachers as “committed to teaching what they have learned to love.” In one crucial way, good teachers cannot be dispassionate. They cannot be dispassionate about the works they teach — assuming that they are teaching important works. This does not mean that they advocate each idea of every author, but rather that they are moved and are seen to be moved by the power of the works and are able to convey that power to their students. Just as good scholarship is inspired, so must good teaching be.
A good curriculum
If the teacher is the guide, the curriculum is the path. A good curriculum marks the points of significance so that the student does not wander aimlessly over the terrain, dependent solely on chance to discover the landmarks of human achievement.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to design general education curricula that identify these landmarks. David Savage of the Los Angeles Times expressed the consensus of the study group when he said: “Most students enter college expecting that the university and its leaders have a clear vision of what is worth knowing and what is important in our heritage that all educated persons should know. They also have a right to expect that the university sees itself as more than a catalog of courses.”
Although the study group embraced the principle that all institutions should accept responsibility for deciding what their graduates should know, most members believed that no single curriculum could be appropriate in all places. The study group recognized the diverse nature of higher education under whose umbrella are institutions with different histories, philosophies, educational purposes, student body characteristics, and religious and cultural traditions. Each institution must decide for itself what it considers an educated person to be and what knowledge that person should possess. While doing so, no institution need act as if it were operating in a vacuum. There are standards of judgment: Some things are more important know than others.
The choices a college or university makes for its common curriculum should be rooted firmly in its institutional identity and educational purpose. In successful institutions, an awareness of what the college or university is trying to do acts as unifying principle, a thread that runs through and ties together the faculty, the curriculum, the students, and the administration. If an institution has no clearly conceived and articulated sense of itself, its efforts to design a curriculum will result in little more than an educational garage sale, possibly satisfying most campus factions but serving no real purpose and adding up to nothing of significance. Developing a common curriculum with the humanities at the core is no easy task. In some institutions, it will be difficult to attain. But merely being exposed to a variety of subjects and points of view is not enough. Learning to think critically and skeptically is not enough. Being well-rounded is not enough if, after all the sharp edges have been filed down, discernment is blunted and the graduate is left to believe without judgment, to decide without wisdom, or to act without standards.
The study group identified several features common to any good curriculum, regardless of institutional particulars:
(1) Balance between breadth and depth. A good curriculum should embody both wide reading and close reading. Students should study a number of important texts and subjects with thoroughness and care. They should also become acquainted with other texts and subjects capable of giving them a broader view, a context for understanding what they know well. Excessive concentration in one area, however, often abetted by narrow departmentalism, can promote provincialism and pendantry. Conversely, as William Arrowsmith warned, going too far toward breadth could make the curriculum a mere “bus trip of the West” characterized by “shallow generalization and stereotypes.”
(2) Original texts. Most members of the study group believed that the curriculum should be based on original literary, historical, and philosophical texts rather than on secondary works or textbooks. By reading such works, reflecting on them, discussing them, and writing about them, students will come to understand the power of ideas.
(3) Continuity. The undergraduate’s study of the humanities should not be limited to the freshman and sophomore years. Rather, it should extend throughout the undergraduate career so that continuing engagement with the humanities will complement and add perspective to courses in the major field as well as contribute to students’ increasing intellectual maturity as juniors and seniors. Professor Linda Spoerl of Highline Community College said: “The idea that general education requirements should be satisfied as quickly is possible before the student goes onto the ‘real’ part of education does everyone a disservice.”
(4) Faculty strength. Because a good curriculum must rest on a firm foundation of good teaching, it follows that the nature of that curriculum should respect areas of faculty competence and expertise. As David Riesman pointed out, it does little good to require study of Shakespeare if there are no scholars on the faculty who can teach Shakespeare with insight and contagious appreciation. On the other hand, any institution that lacks faculty expertise in the basic fields and work of the humanities should take immediate steps to fill those gaps or to develop such competence in existing faculty.
(5) Conviction about the centrality of the humanities. Finally, the humanities must not be argued for as something that will make our students refined, nor should the humanities be presented as a non-rigorous interlude where the young can chew over their feelings, emote, or rehash their opinions. The humanities are not educational luxury, and they are not just for majors. They are a body of knowledge and a means of inquiry that convey serious truths, defensible judgments, and significant ideas. Properly taught, the humanities bring together the perennial questions of human life with the greatest works of history, literature, philosophy, and art. Unless the humanities are taught and studied in this way, there is little reason to offer them.
Based on our discussions, we recommend the following knowledge in the humanities as essential to a college education:
- Because our society is the product and we the inheritors of Western civilization, American students need an understanding of its origins and development, from its roots in antiquity to the present. This understanding should include a grasp of the major trends in society, religion, art, literature, and politics, as well as a knowledge of basic chronology.
- A careful reading of several masterworks of English, American, and European literature.
- An understanding of the most significant ideas and debates in the history of philosophy.
- Demonstrable proficiency in foreign language (either modern or classical) and the ability to view that language as an avenue into another culture.
In addition to these areas of fundamental knowledge, study group members recommended that undergraduates have some familiarity with the history, literature, religion, and philosophy of at least one non-Western culture or civilization. We think it better to have a deeper understanding of a single non-Western culture than a superficial taste of many. Finally, the study group thought that all students should study the history of science and technology.
What should be read?
A curriculum is rarely much stronger than the syllabi of its courses, the arrays of text singled out for careful reading in discussion. The syllabi should reflect the college’s best judgment concerning specific texts which in educated person should be familiar and should include texts within the competence and interest of its faculty.
Study group members agreed that an institution’s syllabi should not be set in stone; indeed, the syllabi should change from time to time to take into account the expertise of available faculty and the result of continuing scrutiny and refinement. The task, however, is not to take faculty beyond their competence and training, nor to displace students’ individual interests and career planning, but to reach and inhabit common ground for while.
We frequently hear that is no longer possible to reach consensus on the most significant thinkers, the most compelling ideas, and the books all students should read. Contemporary American culture, the argument goes, has become too fragmented and too pluralistic to justify a belief in common learning. Although it is easier (and more fashionable) to doubt than to believe, it is a grave error to base a college curriculum on such doubt. Also, I have long suspected that there is more consensus on what the important books are than many people have been willing to admit.
In order to test this proposition and to learn what the American public thinks are the most significant works, I recently invited several hundred educational and cultural leaders to recommend ten books that any high school graduate should have read. The general public was also invited in newspaper column by George F. Will to send me their lists. I received recommendations for more than 500 individuals. They listed hundreds of different texts and offers, yet four — Shakespeare’s plays, American historical documents (the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Federalist Papers), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the Bible — were cited at least 50 percent of the time.
I have not done the comparable survey on what college graduates should read, but the point to be made is clear: Many people do believe that some books are more important than others, and there is broader agreement on what those books are then many have supposed. Each college’ s list will vary somewhat, reflecting the character of the institution and other factors. But there would be, and should be, significant overlap.
I am often asked what I believe to be the most significant works in humanities. This is an important question, too important to avoid. Some works and their authors have profoundly influenced my life, and it is plain that the same works have influenced the lives of many others as well. In providing a list of these works and authors, it is not my intention (nor is it my right) to dictate anyone’s curriculum. My purpose is not to prescribe a course of studies but to answer, as candidly as I can, an oft-asked question.
The works and authors I mention virtually define the development of the Western mind. There are, at a number of institutions, strong introductory courses already in place whose syllabi include such works. These institutions do not expect undergraduates to read most of the major works of these authors. They have learned, however, that is not unreasonable to expect students to read works by some of them and to know who the others were and why they are important.
The works and authors I have in mind include, but are not limited to, the following: from classical antiquity — Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil; from medieval, Renaissance, and 17th-century Europe — Dante, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Milton, and Locke; from 18th- through 20th-century Europe — Swift, Rousseau, Austin, Wordsworth, Tocqueville, Dickens, Marx, George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Mann, T. S. Eliot; from American literature and historical documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I have a dream…” speech, and such authors as Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner. Finally, I must mention the Bible, which is the basis for so much subsequent history, literature, and philosophy. At a college or university, what weight is given to which authors must of course depend on faculty competence and interest. But, should not every humanities faculty possess some members qualified to teach at least something of these authors?
Why these particular books and these particular authors? Because an important part of education is learning to read, and highest purpose of reading is to be in the company of great souls. There are, to be sure, many fine books and important authors not included in the list, and they too deserve the student’ s time and attention. But to pass up the opportunity to spend time with this company is to miss a fundamental experience of higher education.
Great souls do not express themselves by the written word only; they also paint, sculpt, build, and compose. An educated person should be able not only to recognize some of their works, but also to understand why they embody the best in our culture. Should we be satisfied if the graduates of our colleges in universities know nothing of the Parthenon’s timeless classical proportions, the textbook in medieval faith and philosophy that is Chartres cathedral, of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, or the music of Bach and Mozart?
How well are the humanities being taught and learned on the nation’s campuses?
Our experience in higher education and study of empirical data convince us that the humanities are being taught and learned with uneven success. Some institutions into an outstanding job, some a poor one. At most colleges and universities, the humanities are taught both well and poorly, with inspiration in one classroom, excruciating dullness and pendantry in another. Overall, however, both teaching and learning in the humanities are not what they should be or can be, and they are neither taught as well nor studied as carefully as they deserve to be.
Evidence for this decline is compelling. Preliminary findings from a 1984-85 survey by the American Council on Education indicate that a student can obtain a bachelor’s degree from 75 percent of all American colleges and universities without having studied European history, from 72 percent without having studied American literature or history, and from 86 percent without having studied the civilizations of classical Greece and Rome. The Modern Language Association reports that both entrance and graduation requirements in foreign languages have been weakened significantly since 1966. In that year, 33 percent of all colleges and universities required some foreign language study for admission. By 1975, only 18 percent required foreign language, and by 1983 only 14 percent. The picture is similar for graduation requirements. In 1966, 89 percent of all institutions required foreign language study for the bachelor’s degree, dropping to 53 percent in 1975 and 47 percent in 1983.
Conventional wisdom attributes the steep drop in the number of students who major in the humanities to a concern for finding good-paying jobs after college. Although there is some truth in this, we believe that there is another, equally important reason — namely, that we in the academy have failed to bring the humanities to life and to insist on their value. For 1970 to 1982, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields increased by 11 percent from 846,110 to 952,998. But during the same period, degrees in English dropped not by a few percentage points, but by 57 percent, in philosophy by 41 percent, in history by 62 percent, and in modern languages by 50 percent. Indications are that the decline is continuing. For 1975 to 1983, the number of high school seniors who took the SAT exam and specified an intended college major rose by 14 percent. Over the same eight-year period, a number who planned to major in the humanities fell by 42 percent. Perspective history majors decreased by 60 percent.
If further evidence of students’ estrangement from the humanities is required, one need only refer to the American Council on Education’s 1983 survey of academic deans at colleges and universities. Two-thirds of those surveyed indicated that the most able entering undergraduates were turning away from the humanities to other fields, mainly professional and technical. This is not merely a rejection of a career in humanities, but a rejection of the humanities themselves. The former is not a cause for alarm; the latter is.
Impressionistic or anecdotal evidence for the decline of the humanities surfaces every time I talk to college professors, academic officers, and students. Such evidence is familiar: students who graduate from college unable to write lucidly or reason clearly and rigorously; students who are preoccupied (even obsessed) with vocational goals at the expense of broadening the intellect; students who are ignorant of philosophy and literature and know and care little about the history of their nation and their culture. For example, I know of one university philosophy professor who administers a simple test to his students at the beginning of classes each year to determine how much prior knowledge he can presume. The test consists of identifying 20 important names and events from history (such as Shakespeare, St. Augustine, Beethoven, the Protestant Reformation, and Rembrandt). On the most recent test, his students — mainly sophomores and juniors — correctly identified an average of only six of the 20.
I must emphasize here that our aim is not to argue for more majors in the humanities, but to state as emphatically as we can that the humanities should have a place in the education of all. Our nation is significantly enriched by the breadth and diversity of its professions and occupations and the interests of its citizens. Our universities should continue to encourage instruction in a full variety of fields and careers. But we do argue that, whatever endeavors our students ultimately choose, some substantial quality instruction in the humanities should be an integral part of everyone’s collegiate education. The study of the humanities in no way detracts from the career interests of students. Properly taught, they will enrich all.
The state of teaching in humanities
If learning in humanities is in decline, at least some of the blame must be assigned to those who teach the humanities and to academic administrators who determine the allocation of institutional resources. The study group criticized some universities for surrendering the teaching of introductory and lower division courses to graduate assistants or adjunct, part-time faculty. In making these criticisms, the study group recognized the classes taught by adjunct faculty and graduate students allow the institution to serve more students per faculty salary dollar, and that it is necessary to give future professors experience in the classroom. Nevertheless, the study group was concerned that such persons are not, as a group, the best teachers — the most experienced, most accomplished, and most intellectually mature. They are not capable of extending the most attractive invitation to the humanities to those lower division students who account for nearly 90 percent of all humanities credit hours taken. If students do not experience the best the humanities have to offer early in their undergraduate careers, they are unlikely to come back for more. University of Chicago Professor Wayne Booth said in his 1982 presidential address to the Modern Language Association:
We have chosen — no one required it of us — to say to the world, almost in so many words, that we do not care who teaches the non-majors or under what conditions, so long as the troublesome hordes move on and out: forced in by requirements, forced out by discouragement, or by disgust, or by literal failure. The great public fears or despises us because we hire a vast army of underpaid flunkies to teach the so-called service courses, so that we can gladly teach, in our advanced courses, those precious souls who survive the gauntlet. Give us lovers and we will love them, but do not expect us to study courtship. If we had decided to run up a flag on the quad saying that we care not a whit whether our society consists of people who practice critical understanding, so long as we are left free to teach advanced courses, we could not have given a clearer message.
And Frank Vandiver, president of Texas A&M; University, recently analyzed the problem this way: “the liberal arts… have allowed this to happen to themselves. They have allowed themselves to sit behind ivy-covered walls and say, ‘We are the liberal arts and to hell with you.'”
The problem is more than just who does the teaching; it is also how the humanities are taught. Too often introductory humanities courses are taught as if they were initial preparation for majors rather than as general education for all students. This often contributes to a fragmented, compartmentalized curriculum instead of an integrated, coherent one. When humanities are presented as a series of isolated disciplinary packages, students cannot possibly see the interrelatedness of great works, ideas, and minds.
The study group was alarmed by the tendency of some humanities professors to present their subjects in a tendentious, ideological manner. Sometimes the humanities are used as if they were the handmaiden of ideology, subordinated to particular prejudices and valued or rejected on the basis of the relation to a certain social stance.
At the other extreme, the humanities are declared to have no inherent meaning because all meaning is subjective and relative to one’s own perspective. There is no longer agreement on the value of historical facts, empirical evidence, or even rationality itself.
Both these tendencies developed in the hope that we will again show students the relevance of our subjects. Instead of demonstrating relevance, however, they condemn the humanities to irrelevance — the first, by subordinating our studies to contemporary prejudices; the second, by implying that the great works no longer had anything to teach us about ourselves or about life. As David Riesman said, some students are captivated by these approaches and think them modern or sophisticated. But the vast majority of students have correctly thought otherwise and have chosen to vote with their feet, stampeding out of the humanities departments. We cannot blame this on an insufficient number of students, or on the quality of students, or even on the career aspirations of students. We must blame ourselves for our failure to protect and transmit a legacy our students deserve to know.
Effects of graduate education on teaching
Instead of aiming at turning out men and women of broad knowledge and lively intellect, our graduate schools produce too many narrow specialists whose teaching is often lifeless, stilted, and pedestrian. In his recent lecture to the American Council of Learned Societies, Yale Professor Maynard Mack took graduate schools to task for failing to educate broadly:
When one reads thoughtfully in the works by Darwin, Marx, and Freud, what one finds most impressive is not the competence they show in the studies we associate them with, though that is of course impressive, but the range of what they knew, the staggering breadth of that reading which they had made their own and without which, one comes to understand, they could never have achieved the insights in their own areas that we honor them for. Today, it seems to me, we are still moving mostly in the opposite direction, despite here and there a reassuring revolt. We are narrowing, not enlarging our horizons. We are shucking, not assuming our responsibilities. And we communicate with fewer and fewer because it is easier to jabber in a jargon than to explain complicated matters in the real language of men. How long can a democratic nation afford to support a narcissistic minority so transfixed by its own image?
University of Oregon Dean Robert Berdahl described the problem as one of acculturation and unrealistic expectations. Dean Berdahl observed that most of today’s college faculty were trained during the 1960s and early 1970s, a period of rapid growth in the academic sector and increasing private and government support for research. As a result, they are oriented more toward research, publication, and teaching graduate students than toward educating nonmajors and generalists. “The successful career to which one is taught to aspire,” wrote Dean Berdahl, “is to end up at an institution like that at which one received one’s doctorate, where the ‘real work’ of the profession takes place and where, if one must teach undergraduates, one need only deal with majors or very bright students.”
When these former graduate students secure jobs in our college classrooms, they find themselves poorly equipped to teach undergraduates. Again, Robert Berdahl:
English professors insist that they are not able to teach composition, so that must be left to graduate students or a growing group of underpaid itinerant instructors. Historians who used to be responsible for teaching the entire sweep of Western civilization or the Survey of American History now insist on teaching only that portion of it that corresponds to their specialties. Foreign literature specialists consider it a waste of their talent to teach foreign language classes. Lower division, general education courses are thus often conceptually no different from the upper division courses offered for majors and graduate students; they are only broader. Instead of asking: “What should a student learn from this ‘Civ’ class or ‘Intro to Lit’ class if this is the only history or literature class he or she will take in four years?”, we ask: “What will best prepare the student to take advanced literature or history classes?”
Graduate education’s tendencies toward what Mellon Foundation President John Sawyer called “hyper-specialization and self-isolating vocabularies” often result in a faculty that, even after several years of advanced study, are no better educated than the undergraduates. John Silber, president of Boston University, wrote in a letter to me:
The Ph.D. is no longer a guarantee that its holder is truly educated. Everyone has seen the consequences of this: how frequently we now meet Ph.D.’s who are incapable of writing correctly or speaking effectively; who are so narrow in their interests that the civilizing effect of the humanities appears to have been entirely lost upon them; who are so jejune in their research interests as to call into question the entire scholarly enterprise.
In a recent article, Harvard Professor Walter Jackson Bate warned that “the humanities are not merely entering, they are plunging into their worst state of crisis since the modern university was formed a century ago in the 1880s.” Professor Bate went on to exhort graduate humanities departments to examine their priorities:
The subject matter — the world’s great literature — is unrivaled. All we need is the chance and the imagination to help it work upon the minds and characters of the millions of students to whom we are responsible. Ask that the people you are now breeding up in departments, and to whom you now give tenure appointments, be capable of this.
Training good researchers is vital to the humanities and to the mission of every graduate school. But many graduate schools have become so preoccupied with training narrow research specialists that they no longer address adequately the more pressing need of higher education for good teachers, broadly versed in their fields, inspired by the power of their subjects, and committed to making those subjects speak to the undergraduate. Unless our graduate schools reexamine this misplaced emphasis, much of our teaching will remain mediocre and our students indifferent.
This state of the humanities curriculum
The past twenty years have seen a steady erosion in the place of the humanities in the undergraduate curriculum and in the coherence of the curriculum generally. So serious has this erosion become that Mark Curtis, president of the Association of American Colleges, wrote: “The chaotic state of the baccalaureate curriculum may be the most urgent and troubling problem of higher education in the final years of the 20th-century.” Clark Kerr has called the undergraduate curriculum “a disaster area,” and Professor Frederick Rudolph of Williams college has written:
… when the professors abandoned a curriculum that they thought students needed, they substituted for it one that, instead, catered either to what the professors needed or what the students wanted. The results confirmed the authority of professors and students but they robbed the curriculum of any authority at all. The reaction of students to all this activity in the curriculum was brilliant. They concluded that the curriculum really didn’t matter.
A collective loss of nerve and faith on the part of both faculty and academic administrators during the late 1960s and early 1970s was undeniably destructive of the curriculum. When students demanded a greater role in setting their own educational agendas, we responded by abandoning course requirements of any kind and with them the intellectual authority to say to students what the outcome of a college education ought to be. With intellectual authority relinquished, we found that we did not need to worry about what was worth knowing, worth defending, worth believing. The curriculum was no longer a statement about what knowledge mattered; instead, it became the product of a political compromise among competing schools and departments overlaid by marketing considerations. In a recent article, Frederick Rudolph likened the curriculum to “a bazaar and students [to] tourists looking for cheap bargains.”
Once the curriculum was dissolved, colleges and universities found it difficult to reconstruct because of the pressures of the marketplace. All but the most selective institutions must now compete for scarce financial resources — students’ tuition and enrollment-driven state subsidies. As a consequence, many are reluctant to reinstate meaningful course requirements for fear of frightening away prospective applicants. (I believe such a fear is misplaced, but more on this later.)
Intellectual authority came to be replaced by intellectual relativism as a guiding principle of the curriculum. Because colleges and universities believed they no longer could or should assert the primacy of one fact or one book over another, all knowledge came to be seen as relative in importance, relative to consumer or faculty interest. This loss was accompanied by a shift in language. The desired ends of education changed from knowledge to “inquiry,” from content to “skills.” We began to see colleges listing their objectives as teaching such skills as reading, critical thinking, and awareness of other points a view. These are undeniably essential ends to a college education, but they are not sufficient. One study group member said, “What good is knowing how to write if you are ignorant of the finest examples of the language?” Failure to address content allows colleges and universities to beg the question of what an educated man or woman in the 1980s needs to know. The willingness of too many colleges to act as if all learning is relative is a self-inflicted wound that has impaired our ability to defend our subjects as necessary for learning or important for life.
Effects of the curriculum on secondary education
It is not surprising that once colleges and universities decided the curriculum did not have to represent a vision of an educated person, the secondary schools (and their students) took a cue and reached the same conclusion. Vanderbilt University Professor Chester Finn pointed out that college entrance requirements constitute de facto high school exit requirements for high school graduates — now nearly six of every 10 — who seek postsecondary education. With exit requirements relaxed, college-bound students no longer perceived need to take electives in English and history, let alone foreign languages. Instead, they choose courses thought to offer immediate vocational payoff. Clifford Adelman described research for the National Commission on Excellence in Education that dramatically illustrates this trend. From 1969 to 1981, the humanities declined as a percentage of total high school credits taken, a decline parallel to that in the colleges. Credits in Western civilization are down 50 percent, in U.S. history down twenty percent and in U.S. government down 70 percent. My own experience attests to the woeful state of high school curriculum. Recently I met with 70 high school student leaders — all excellent students — from all over the country. When I ask them how many had heard of the Federalist Papers, only seven raised their hands.
As enrollments in basic high school humanities courses fell off, it became more difficult for the schools to justify keeping them. Therefore, many schools dropped humanities courses from the curriculum. When high school graduates enter college, they are poorly prepared in basic knowledge of the humanities as well as in such essential skills as reading and writing. The remedial courses needed by these students cut into the college curriculum, effectively reducing the amount of actual college level course work they can take.
Twenty years ago, William Arrowsmith wrote: “Our entire educational enterprise is… founded upon the wholly false premise that at some prior stage the essential educational work has been done.” Sadly, this is still true today. The humanities must be put back into the high school curriculum, but this is unlikely to happen unless they are first restored in the colleges. If colleges take the lead in reinstating humanities course requirements, the high schools will surely respond. Evidence of this was related by Professor Noel Reynolds of Brigham Young University, who described how college preparatory course enrollments in Utah’s high schools rose after an announcement by the state’s two largest universities that preference for admission would be given to students who had completed college preparatory, including humanities, courses. Some Utah secondary schools reported an increase in foreign language enrollments of as much as 200 percent, and only slightly less dramatic increases in English and history.
Bright spots in the curriculum
The study group examined in depth the graduation requirements of numerous colleges and universities. The group found enormous variety, ranging from no course requirements of any kind to sequences of highly prescriptive core courses. Types of curricula did not seem to be associated with types of institutions. Some of the least coherent curricula were those of nationally prestigious, highly selective institutions, while some of the most carefully defined were found at less selective local or regional institutions. The most common type of curriculum was the “distribution requirements” model, in which students selected courses from a limited list of regular departmental offerings within a few broad interdepartmental clusters. Often the humanities requirements can be satisfied by taking such courses as speech, remedial writing, or performing arts. Even in institutions where the humanities are defined more rigorously, distribution requirements rarely guarantee that a student will master an explicit body of knowledge or confront a series of important original texts.
A few colleges and universities have rejected this model in favor of a course of studies in which all students share carefully designed learning experience. Some colleges and universities have been doing this for a long time and have remained steadfast in their commitment. Others have moved in recent years to restore a sound common curriculum. Two of the latter capture the attention of the study group: Brooklyn College and St. Joseph’s College.
Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York system, has about 14,000 undergraduates, many of whom our recent immigrants. Most major and professional fields such as pre-law, accounting, and communications. Yet, since 1981 all bachelor’s degree candidates, regardless of major, have taken a sequence of ten core courses, seven of which are in the humanities. Many of the courses emphasize original texts. For example, Core Studies 1, “Classical Origins of Western Culture,” requires readings in homer, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Virgil, and other writers of classical antiquity. Brooklyn’s success with the core curriculum has surpassed all expectations. The college reports that its faculty (50 percent of whom teach in the core) are enlightened intellectually by teaching the core courses and that students’ writing has improved considerably as result of a “Writing across the Core” program. Students, too, are excited by the new curriculum. They say they are able to see relationships among fields, and they talk about a renewed sense of the community of learning, a community that includes faculty, students, and administrators. The administration’s commitment to the curriculum can be seen in the fact that both the president and provost teach core courses.
Although it is a very different kind of institution, St. Joseph’s College in Indiana has developed a similar curriculum with equally good results. St. Joseph’s is a Catholic school of about 1000 students. Business, finance, and computer science are popular majors. Like Brooklyn College, St. Joseph’s requires a sequence of ten core courses. St. Joseph’s differs from Brooklyn in distributing these courses over all four years, whereas Brooklyn’s core courses are concentrated in the first two. The Brooklyn and St. Joseph’s cores also share curricular coherence in the way courses are arranged in logical progression, each course building upon the previous one. All core courses at St. Joseph’s involve the humanities. There is tremendous enthusiasm for the core approach among faculty, two-thirds of whom teach core courses. Even more telling is the enthusiasm of St. Joseph’s alumni, who frequently write faculty to praise the core as an outstanding feature of their college career.
Among two-year colleges, where vocational training is so important to the institutional mission, some schools have recognized the need for a strong common curriculum in the humanities. Kirkwood Community College in Iowa is a noteworthy example. Kirkwood serves about 6000 students, half of whom are enrolled in a liberal arts degree programs. In 1979, several faculty and administrators formed a Humanities Committee to review the humanities curriculum and recommend improvements. The committee developed and obtained approval for a new twenty-hour humanities core requirement. Candidates for the Associate of Arts degree now select from a very limited list of challenging academic courses — in literature, history, philosophy, and languages — which concentrate on reading primary texts and require extensive student writing.
The experience of Brooklyn College, St. Joseph’s College, and Kirkwood Community College proves that the drift toward curricular disintegration can be reversed, that colleges and universities — not just the elite ones — can become true communities of learning, and that it is possible even in this age of skepticism to educate students on the principle that certain areas of knowledge are essential for every college graduate. Their experience also belies the oft-heard fear that students will reject or avoid such a structured curriculum. Intellectually challenging, well-taught courses, whether required or not, will attract good students, and any college that offers a curriculum of such courses will not lack applicants.
The challenge to academic leadership
Revitalizing an educational institution is not easy. Usually it requires uncommon courage and discernment on the part of a few and a shared vision of what can and ought to be on the part of many. Higher education may now being more receptive to decisive leadership that it has been for some time. As University of Puget Sound President Philip Phibbs observed, most colleges and universities sense a crisis on the way and are concerned about the future. Administrators and faculty alike are beginning to perceive that what has traditionally been good for this or that department, one school or another, may be harmful to the institution as a whole and to its overall educational mission.
Recently, educational researchers sought to determine those factors that make some elementary and secondary schools more successful than others. Among the most important was strong leadership from the school principal. Although colleges and universities are more complex institutions than secondary schools, with far stronger fragmenting tendencies, leadership plays the same crucial role.
Curricular reform must begin with the president. Clark Kerr and David Riesman found that only 2 percent of the more than 700 college and university presidents interviewed described themselves as playing a major role in academic affairs. This is an alarming finding. A president should be the chief academic officer of the institution, not just the chief administrative, recruitment, or fund-raising officer. The president and other principal academic officers (provosts, deans, vice presidents for academic affairs) are solely accountable for all its parts and the needs of all its students. They are ultimately responsible for the quality of the education these students receive.
Members of the study group — which included several deans and presidents — believed strongly that presidents can be an effective force for curricular change only if they define their role accordingly. Bucknell University’s Frances Fergusson said that a president’s role is to “define, articulate, and defend institutional goals and to redirect the energy to the faculty towards these broader concerns.” David Riesman characterized a good president as having “a combination of persuasiveness, patience, ingenuity, even stubbornness.” Philip Phibbs said a president must “have the courage to state and insist upon important, and often uncomfortable, if not initially unacceptable, ideas.”
There are a number of concrete steps presidents can take to strengthen the humanities within their institutions. Roland Dille, president of Moorhead State College, said that “in the dozens of speeches that a president makes there ought to be some sign of his having been touched by the humanities. “Beyond this, he can set standards for excellence in undergraduate teaching and see that they are met by hiring deans, provosts, and faculty who are committed to those standards. President Hannah Gray of the University Chicago urged her fellow presidents to “insist on certain qualities” and to “raise certain questions and insist that they be answered.” Donald Stewart, president of Spelman College, showed that a president who views himself as an academic leader can make a real difference. From the beginning of his presidency at Spelman, Stewart sought to cut through the prevalent vocational orientation by stating openly and repeatedly that the humanities are basic to Spelman’s mission, and, in so doing, set a new intellectual tone for the institution. Such statements by institutional leaders must, of course, be accompanied by actions. Among these, and not the least important, is rewarding good teaching in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions.
But as Frederick Rudolph has frequently pointed out, the curriculum cannot be reformed without the enthusiastic support of the faculty. Institutions such as Brooklyn College, St. Joseph’s College, and Kirkwood Community College were able to implement strong curricula because their administrators and faculty worked together toward a common goal, not in opposition to one another or to protect departmental turf. Philip Phibbs called upon humanities faculty to recognize their common interests:
Leadership… must also come from the humanities faculty itself. This group must assert itself aggressively within the larger faculty and make its case with competence and