Commonplaces for “The End of the Humanities”

By commonplace, I am thinking in terms it as one of the progymnasmata, which (as Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee discuss it in various editions of Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students) were the structured exercises in classical rhetoric pedagogy. To quote Crowley (this is from the first edition) quoting Erasmus, here are some commonplaces that students would “amplify” or “elaborate” on as rhetorical exercise:

  • It matters what company you keep.
  • The safest course is to believe no one.
  • War is pleasant to those who have not experienced it.
  • The best provision for old age is learning.

This is a fuzzy definition for me; I’m not sure I see the difference between a commonplace, a cliché, and a genre marker, other than the connotations– that is, commonplaces and genre markers are more noble than clichés.  In any event, I’m using the term commonplace because on Facebook the other day, Daniel Smith pointed to the NYTimes op-ed “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” by Verlyn Klinkenborg with the comment “At what point does a commonplace become a genre?” And then, later that same day, via (I think?) John Walter, I came across Michael Bérubé on Facebook taking on a remarkably similar NYTimes op-ed “The Humanist Vocation” by David Brooks. So I thought it might be an interesting writing exercise to try to begin to tease out some of the key commonplaces/genre markers/clichés of the “End of the Humanities” piece.  I see it as a public service; it will make it easier for future writers to keep up with the demand for such pieces in the mainstream media.

So, what does it take to amplify and elaborate on the commonplace “The humanities are in decline”?   Here’s a list/comparison to get started:

The writer has to establish his or her own ethos as a humanist of some note.

For Klinkenborg, this happens in the first paragraph:

In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

So we know he must be a great humanist/English major-type because he’s teaching at all of these fancy places. As an aside, I think it’s strange that he hopes to have nothing to teach his students each year. Besides being a classic example of what happens when you forget that you aren’t teaching the same students every semester, what would be the point of teaching if your students already knew what it was you were supposed to teach?

I suppose Brooks gets to establish his ethos by virtue of being David Brooks, though he also does so here:

So now the humanities are in crisis. Rescuers are stepping forth. On Thursday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report called “The Heart of the Matter,” making the case for the humanities and social sciences. (I was a member of this large commission, though I certainly can’t take any credit for the result.)

He is simultaneously citing and playing down his role on this commission studying the humanities. Good move.

Refer back to some not so distant past where the humanities were thriving.

Not surprisingly, that time probably best corresponds to when the writer was in school.  Brooks says “A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors.” Klinkenborg has a different frame of reference:

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.

There are two things interesting about this. First, this golden age of the humanities is demonstrably and empirically wrong as Bérubé points out on Facebook, though as Bérubé also points out, it depends on what you define as the Humanities– more on this in a second. Second, if the previously measured high point of the Humanities is related to the writer’s age, then this is a genre that would be tricky for a lot of current college students to compose. “Back when I was in middle school” doesn’t have the same kind of ring to it as “twenty or thirty years ago….”

Focus exclusively on elite/Ivy-League universities to illustrate all of higher education.

Klinkenborg has his list; Brooks mentions Harvard, the University of Chicago, and offers a sideways mention of Davidson College. The rest of higher education has to be ignored, sort of like that New Yorker view of the world. No reason to muddy the issue by talking about the thousands of other colleges and universities in the U.S.; why shouldn’t Harvard or Yale stand in as the generic example of college?

More or less define the humanities as “English,” and further define “English” as “Literature.”

To be fair to Brooks, he doesn’t dwell on this too much. As a sort of “red herring,” he writes “Most people give an economic explanation for this decline. Accounting majors get jobs. Lit majors don’t.” And he also throws in a little D.H. Lawrence to help define what he thinks the humanities are for. But for Klinkenborg, this is clearly his point– thus the title of his column. As a slight tangent: this is also a key commonplace/cliché/marker for the genre “there are no academic jobs in the humanities” op-ed, where in lamenting the lack of opportunities for people with Ph.Ds in the humanities, we really learn that means there are no academic jobs for people who specialized in a version of literature.

This works well for mainstream media articles because it simplifies the definition: that is, if a reader has any doubt what the writer means by humanities, a simple reference to an English class will bring a flashback to the reader’s mind. No reason to complicated all this with the divided definition of “English studies” (that is, composition and rhetoric is very different from literary studies nowadays, not to mention fields like linguistics), and no reason to make this too controversial and mention things like foreign languages, culture/ethnic/gender studies, etc. And there’s also no reason to mention fields that are kind of humanities and that attract a lot of students– Communications and Media Studies are good examples.

In fact, Klinkenborg goes so far as to exclude things that are arguably in the realm of the humanities, or at least “liberal arts,” by arguing neither political science nor economics should count.

Blame the teachers, college professors.

More specifically (albeit indirectly), blame the way that the humanities is taught and/or has been corrupted by “theory” and “politics.”  Brooks writes:

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

Klinkenborg agrees:

A technical narrowness, the kind of specialization and theoretical emphasis you might find in a graduate course, has crept into the undergraduate curriculum. That narrowness sometimes reflects the tight focus of a professor’s research, but it can also reflect a persistent doubt about the humanistic enterprise. It often leaves undergraduates wondering, as I know from my conversations with them, just what they’ve been studying and why.

And of course, blame students, too.

Brooks has more ham-handed politics and wants to blame the liberal elite professoriate, but he gets a few jabs in with students who find the humanities “boring.” That first paragraph I quote from Klinkenborg, the one where he establishes his ethos as a humanist by teaching lots of humanities (aka English, aka Literature) courses at lots of places is followed by this one:

They [meaning students] can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.

Stupid students.

 Finally, wax poetic, mystically, and/or incoherently about the power of the humanities. Do this a lot.

For example, one of the many musings from Brooks:

When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Because if you weren’t an English major, a funeral eulogy sounds just like a résumé?  Riiiight……

Or this from Klinkenborg, though to illustrate my point that “the humanities” stands in for anything that is just generally good, I will substitute the words “the humanities” with “chocolate:”

STUDYING the humanities chocolate should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities chocolate. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities chocolate often do(es) a bad job of explaining why the humanities chocolate matter(s). And three, the humanities chocolate often do a bad job of teaching the humanities chocolate. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities chocolate will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Look, I think the study of art/music/literature/rhetoric/politics/whatever else you want to call “the liberal arts” or “the humanities” is important too, and I do think majoring in Literature is a worthwhile pursuit where students can learn a lot about critical thinking, reading, the differences between eulogies and résumés, sailing, and avoiding the bowels of a ship. But “the Humanities” and/or Literature does not have a monopoly on any of this. Lots of fields of study teach and value these things. I’d even go so far to say that all fields of study in higher education value these things. Or let me put it this way: if I was at a meeting with faculty from across the disciplines and I asked that group “Who here places a high value on critical thinking, reasoning, and lifelong engagement with learning as a part of their major?” I’d expect everyone to say “we do.” I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to say “oh jeez, critical thinking and reasoning?! Not us!”

One last thing: Klinkenborg’s most concrete value from “the humanities”/English/Literature is writing. I wonder why not then just study writing?


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