Sunday, April 09, 2023

NYRB, Letter from an English Department on the Brink 

At the English department I chair, our major has grown by more than 40 percent in the last two years. We are being driven to the edge of extinction anyway.

...In their interviews with Heller, English faculty and administrators discuss an array of real issues with an alarming lack of coherence. They try to place blame both for what is happening at their own institutions and for what they consider broader national concerns: Middlemarch is too long for the TikTok generation; K-12 education is the problem; humanists haven’t made a strong enough case for how our areas of study prepare debt-ridden students for jobs; funding has dried up; a fusty curriculum drives students away; television exists.

Much more to the point are Heller’s interviews with students, who explain the fundamental problem quite clearly: universities do not value the humanities. This disregard is demonstrated in most universities’ built environments, real estate investments, hiring practices, staffing ratios, and unwillingness to direct resources toward the humanities even in appropriate balance with the often substantial revenue they bring in. I heard in these young people’s comments a real awareness of the funding priorities of the colleges they attend.

Students are quick to associate those priorities with their job prospects: when it comes to deciding on a major, they sense that their own personal, intellectual, and creative interests don’t really matter at all. As Ben Schmidt, a data analyst and former history professor, put it in a 2018 article on the declining number of humanities majors, “In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying—in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market.” What faculty and administrators have mistaken for a problem (declining enrollments) with an identifiable cause (take your pick), students correctly see as a story being spun by the universities themselves: this area of study lacks value, is in some sense wrong. That story has become powerful enough to shape their world, restricting the number of paths presented to them as real options. 

Also added here, as an update, to Jäger et al.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment moderation is enabled.