The End Times for the humanities?

NOTE:  A post by David Silbey on his website gives data showing that the decline in humanities enrollment (as percentage of all majors) really declined precipitiously in the from 1970-1985 (when I was in school) and hasn’t dropped much since then. He also claims that the 1970s were a peak, and modern enrollment, while lower than before then, is not that profound (from about 12% to about 7% now.   But that’s still nearly a 50% decline.  And I still maintain that there is a striking and insidious trend to politicize the humanities, especially literature.

__________

The humanities are dying in American universities, with enrollment and interest dropping like a stone. I’m not sure exactly why that is, and I mourn the loss, for I had some wonderful humanities courses in college. Without my courses in English literature, fine arts, philosophy, and Greek drama, I’d be a much poorer person. It’s not so much that I took aboard a lasting body of knowledge from those courses, but that the professors where I went to school —the College of William & Mary—were enthusiastic, often charismatic, and knew how to awaken interest in their subjects, so that for the rest of one’s life you’d want to seek out art, literature, and the “higher” forms of human thought.

I suppose one reason for the thin stream of today’s humanities majors is the difficulty in getting jobs with such degrees, but the thought of “jobs” after college was not in our minds in the late Sixties.

But surely another reason for the demise of humanities is that they’re committing slow seppuku by pandering to trends like postmodernism and, lately, political pressures. That makes them rigid, ideological, and, frankly, no fun.  A diversity of views cannot bloom, for there are now approved ways of thinking.

Or so argues Heather MacDonald at the conservative Wall Street Journal in her January 3 piece, “The humanities have forgotten their humanity.”

Her article begins with a frightening scenario:

In 2011, the University of California at Los Angeles wrecked its English major. Such a development may seem insignificant, compared with, say, the federal takeover of health care. It is not. What happened at UCLA is part of a momentous shift that bears on our relationship to the past—and to civilization itself.

Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.
 
In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”
Well, MacDonald has somewhat misrepresented the situation at UCLA. A bit of digging revealed that English majors there must also take a three-quarter survey course in British and American literature as sophomores, as well as a course each in British medieval literature, Renaissance literature, 17th-18th century British literature, and two courses in American literature.  It would behoove Ms. MacDonald to correct her piece, since those courses surely include Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and many others.
 
Indeed, the old canons did neglect important literature by non-Anglophones, women, and minorities. I can’t imagine, for example, not reading Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, or for that matter A House for Mr. Biswas. Call me a curmudgeon, but the concentration on the Literature of Victimhood is designed to foster political points of view, and I think this is bad, even if I adhere to those points of view. College, after all, is a time to argue and have your viewpoints challenged, not simply reinforced. MacDonald continues:
. . . The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.
 
Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.
Where in here is the sheer love of reading, an appreciation that goes beyond identity politics to embrace the sheer diversity of the human ideas and emotions found within any group? You can’t immerse yourself in the stream of human thought if you’re dammed within your own little tributary. In the end, this trend is doomed if for no other reasons that those getting degrees in Identity Humanities will be so narrowly educated that they’ll find it hard to get jobs.
 
Underlining the problem, MacDonald gets in a lick at one of the Problems, Homi Bhabha at Harvard, one of the worst and most opaque writers to inhabit an American Department of Literature (Judith Butler is up there with him):
 A recent Harvard report from a committee co-chaired by the school’s premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57% of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: “If the problematic ‘closure’ of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . .” How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?
Indeed, Bhabha was a close second to Butler in the 1998 edition of the “Bad Writing Contest” held by the journal Philosophy and Literature. Sadly, the contest, which awarded prizes for atrociously-written sentences, ran from only 1995-1998. Bhabhi’s runner-up prize went for a sentence he penned while at the University of Chicago:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.
Ah, the “enunciatory modality” of it all!
 
And I may as well include the winning sentence by Butler:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
People get paid to write like that! But is no excuse—none—for writing so badly, and these are terrible role models for college students—or any intellectual.  When you see stuff like that, ask yourself, “WWOD?”*
 
*What would Orwell do?
 
 
 
 
 

 

156 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Any sentence, or paragraph-of-a-sentence in this case, with the word “hegemony” in it is very likely to be intellectual woo.

    Or so it seems to me at least.

    • krzysztof1
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      It could be a perfectly good word that has been hijacked by the Marxist-feminist ultra-left!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:01 am | Permalink

      +1 :)

      Surely, anyone who believes that a sentence like that can have any coherent meaning is committing far worse crimes against logic than anything Martin Gardner might have chosen to believe.

  2. krzysztof1
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to make a radical, poorly-thought-out statement just because I like the way it sounds!

    If the Humanities go down, what we will have is technology without science.

  3. Kevin Alexander
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    When I started Butler’s sentence I said to myself ‘I bet any money that hegemony will appear.’

  4. Greg Esres
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    enrollment and interest dropping like a stone. I’m not sure exactly why that is

    How many people can justify the expense if it doesn’t directly relate to getting a good-paying job?

    Even 30 years ago, the common refrain from hearing that someone was pursuing an English major was “How can you get a job with that?”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      That’s a perception problem. It’s because people don’t recognize that learning about Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s works is the only thing a Humanities degree gives you. See my response at 11. In fact, when I did my Classics degree, my professors made sure that we were trained in a way that would make us employable – we were analytical, good writers, fast learners, good presenters and ready to defend and refute arguments. These are all necessary skills.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        “These are all necessary skills.”

        Sure they are, but many non-humanities people have them, too, as well as other more quantifiable skills. A humanities education isn’t necessarily the only route to a humanities’ skillset.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          My point is that taking a Humanities degree isn’t a short cut to the unemployment line like people think but actually equips you with necessary skills for the economy probably equally well as any other degree.

          Further, the level of writing required to pass a Humanities course, especially an English course, far exceeds others. You get away with a bit more when you’re in Social Sciences for example because the emphasis is not on writing and with every course you take with an English degree, at least half of the mark you receive is on how well you write, argue and back up those arguments with evidence.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

            My point is that taking a Humanities degree isn’t a short cut to the unemployment line like people think but actually equips you with necessary skills for the economy probably equally well as any other degree.

            Two separate claims here:

            1) Hiring rates for Humanities majors are as good as any other major,
            2) Humanities majors have all the skills needed to be gainfully employed.

            There is also a third claim which you didn’t make but is relevant:

            3) Starting salaries for humanities majors are as good as any other.

            I know that #3 is false and I suspect that #1 is false. I will give you #2. :-)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

              No I didn’t claim #1 because I don’t have the stats. The only thing I claimed is if you get a Humanities degree you are not guaranteed to graduate into unemployment/destitution and Humanities grads have all the skills required to thrive in and adapt to a changing economy. My starting IT job didn’t even exist when I graduated. No one was training for it.

              I never claimed #3 either. I also do not have those stats. I know many humanities grads become lawyers but I suspect lawyers have rather low starting salaries if you consider those salaries starting when they are articling; further, one also would consider lawyers Law grads not Humanities grads. One thing I have alluded to in my other post is that I don’t agree with studying something because you want to make a lot of money. You really should love what you do and if you are fortunate enough to get a post secondary education, you should do yourself the favour of extending that privilege to doing work you love; even if it’s not something you can do right away for whatever economic issues you are faced with. Sure, I could’ve been a lawyer, even a good one but I didn’t want to do that and many did it because they liked the money and the prestige. Further, trying to gauge what jobs will be wanted and pay a lot can be tricky. My first job (the job that got me into IT) didn’t exist when I was in school. Many jobs today won’t be the jobs of tomorrow. Study what you like and what you can do well in.

              What I can tell you is there is no decision to pay non Humanities grads higher starting salaries than Humanities grads for the same positions. I lived through that fantasy and I was making just as much as any of my science or engineering grad co-workers doing similar work.

            • Kevin
              Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              I have no doubt that humanities majors are less employable than science/engineering majors. I also have no doubt that the majority of humanities majors are complete dumb-asses and probably fell into those fields by default of not wanted to work hard at something like mathematics. But I have also witnessed a huge number of science (mostly physics and most engineering fields) majors whose lives are utterly vapid and their response to life is wholly without critical thinking.

              People who are comfortable and, at least, partially educated, in both humanities and science are the only ones I have found who have a lasting effect on the direction humanity moves.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

                Well if they were dumb (the Humanities folks) they wouldn’t have passed. Maybe I’m stupid, though I think not, but I worked just as hard as my Science friends. They may have had labs, but I had language labs. They may have had math, but I had beyond level one second language work to do. I don’t think it’s accurate to portray the majority of Humanities grads as stupid and lazy and the degree as easy to get because these stupid, lazy people got them. Sure, a C average in a 3 year non honours course my mean there are “lazier” types but that isn’t restricted to the Humanities.

              • Christopher
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

                If we were only as well rounded as yourself Kevin, all of us humanities majors would be better off. Having an undergraduate in the humanities and a doctorate in the sciences myself, I find your comments totally ridiculous.

        • Kevin
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          I taught physics/calculus high school for a couple of years after getting a philosophy degree. Some of the most rewarding years of my life. Without a liberal arts degree I could not have made the difference in anyone’s life the way I did. Physics, alone, was not going to teach those lessons.

          Granted physics majors can teach physics in high school too, but I have never seen any who have a breadth of knowledge that a humanities major (with adequate physics education) can bring to the classroom. It is a wildly different world coming from a four year humanities experience with a little science added than one from science/engineering experience with a little humanities added…at least today it is.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    The world is falling apart.

    Get off my lawn, you thumb twitching young people!

  6. Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with the WSJ article, but it’s true that the humanities are misrepresented by the disproportionate loudness of trendy literary theorists. This might be of interest to you: http://skepticalhumanities.com/2011/04/12/the-topography-of-ignorance-science-and-literary-theory/

  7. krzysztof1
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    It sounds as if things have not changed for the better since Gross & Levitt’s _Higher Superstition_ came out in 1999.

    • krzysztof1
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Of course that book dealt with science, but the criticism is still directed toward the same source.

    • Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      The vast majority of scholarship in the humanities is completely respectable, not goofy research. It’s often specialized and not sexy. Like the guy who spends his life classifying butterfly genitalia or whatever.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I remember a really good professor left our Classics department to work in a museum & we always imagined her sitting in a basement, organizing pottery shards.

        • Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

          Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! I was an archivist, and curating collections gets you first access to some amazing stuff!

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            We didn’t really knock it and I’d love to do that but she was an excellent academic and a wonderful professor. She got into some bad politics with the department and got squeezed out and it was a big loss IMO for generations to come.

      • krzysztof1
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        For a while it seems it was the goofballs who were getting all the publicity, though. That’s not good. The most notorious sentence I can recall was this one, by Feminist Musicologist Susan McClary: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”

        She subsequently removed the reference to rape in her published book version of the article.

        Nutty as that was, it was at least coherent; nowadays post-post-modernists probably avoid being singled out by being completely unintelligible!

        • krzysztof1
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          “the Ninth” of course refers to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Forgot to clarify that.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:07 am | Permalink

            ‘s all right, I think it was fairly obvious. At least to non-musicians like me, there’s only one Ninth.

  8. gg
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I will recommend Camille Paglia’s interview in the Wall Street Journal:

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303997604579240022857012920

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      I’ve long enjoyed Paglia’s incisiveness, but, you know, she’s become a bit of a caricature herself.

  9. Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    According to philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg (writing in a similar vein), the wounds tend to be self-inflicted: “Cura Te Ipsum.” For example:

    First, over the last two generations the humanities (except for philosophy) have lost faith with their callings as the bearers of a continuous cultural inheritance–a canon […] the result has been an advanced curriculum their students find foreign and their colleagues educated before this sea change cannot appreciate.

    It’s also worth noting that the really big decline happened a long time ago: “A Crisis in the Humanities?

    • Gordon
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I was just about to refer to that article which rather suggests that the current state of the humanities is more the long term reality – but also that it remains a vibrant field if you consider output rather than enrolment figures.

  10. Charles E. Jones
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    My geology advisor at Stanford told me that “If you cannot write, you cannot think.” I was shocked by what he said at the time, but I think he is for most people correct.

    I wonder if English Literature is going down the tubes because they are required to produce novel academic research to get tenure. It is pretty tough to write new stuff on Shakespeare and Milton, I bet, so the focus of the junior faculty has by necessity shifted to identity politics and the like. It hasn’t yet been done to death.

    Perhaps some fields should re-evaluate the relative importance they place on original research versus taking students on an amazing voyage of discovery through the humanities. My Renaissance Art, Shakespeare, and ‘Founders in Myth and History’ classes, for example, had a profound and life-long impact on me. I certainly think that for quality thinking to survive, the humanities must thrive!

    • Greg Esres
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      My geology advisor at Stanford told me that “If you cannot write, you cannot think.” I was shocked by what he said at the time, but I think he is for most people correct.

      I agree, too. I’ve also had people try to say to me “I understand it, but I can’t explain it,” which I think is BS. The sure way to verify that you truly do understand something is to try to explain it to someone else, which is what writing is.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. When I was a postdoc in Neurology working on muscle structure, my advisor said “If you can’t explain your work to someone who has no knowledge of cell biology, you probably don’t understand it yourself”.

        • ttch
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          David L. Goodstein once wrote:

          [Richard] Fenman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

    • Kevin
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      I do not think that some fields need to do much re-evaluation. If someone has never read Shakespeare or seen some works of Renaissance Art having one or many courses on the subjects is really useful, even if nothing ‘new’ is developed. Exposure is really essential and it has to happen somewhere in someone’s life. Formal exposure can also be significant because it is reinforced by classmates who can be equally excited about discovering something new to them.

    • Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      Actually, one of the problems with humanities literature (disclaimer: I am really only familiar with musicology) is that it should be “pretty tough to write new stuff” on the music of Bach or Beethoven (my Shakespeare and Milton analogues), and yet new stuff is pouring out constantly. The authors therefore take more and more liberties, write more and more fancifully, and the results are less than veridical.

      So you get claims that outright stealing of musical material was a common, tolerated and expected practice in Bach’s day, based on nothing more than the fact that Bach and other composers would often copy out the works of others by hand, and based on coincidental similarities of short passages in different composers’ works.

      And you get things like the McClary interpretation mentioned above by Kryztof: a feminist interpretation of Beethoven 9 complete with rape imagery.

      ???

      (I’m generalizing; good scholarship is also done.)

  11. Robert Bray
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    To a lifetime professor of humanities (specifically, of literature) the decline of interest in my subject is heartbreaking. But it was also predictable. When ‘structuralism’ (from anthropology and linguistics) gave way to ‘post-structuralism’ (from Marxism and European phenomenology), and that to ‘culture studies’ (an impenetrable intellectual sludge composed of the worst of both of these), literature qua literature disappeared. Any text became as potentially important as any other: the phone book right there with Shakespeare. ‘Discourse’ was and is the cant term.

    The very best graduate schools let this happen, even abetted it. When I entered PhD studies in English at the University of Chicago, it was an intellectual bastion of analysis and interpretation, founded in Aristotelian naturalism. Soon after I left––and the best professors died––the English department gave itself over to obfuscators like Bhabhi.

    Part of this intellectual collapse (as I judge it to have been) was a crisis in literary interpretation: objective aesthetic judgment became harder and harder to sustain in an acceptable philosophical way. How could we show that Shakespeare was better than, say, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and ‘Lear’ better than ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin?’ This was the most difficult task of literary-critical study, and ‘we’ decided it was unanswerable and therefore irrelevant.

    When we gave up trying to objectify our discipline, we created a vacuum for ‘culture studies’ to rush in an fill. And they have. Only trouble is, many of its practitioners not only can’t write: they also can’t read.

    • Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:15 am | Permalink

      Love your last sentence. You can certainly write.

      And so, by the way, can most contributors to this notablog. That is to say, their expression may not always be the most literary, but they usually manage to adequately convey their meaning.

    • Amelia Schuler
      Posted January 9, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      +1

      Do studies in the humanities in the UK, for example, suffer from the same decline? Is this largely an American phenomenon?

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    OMG that sentence! How are people allowed to hold an academic position and write the type of incoherent garbage that a poor undergrad would not get away with writing (most likely receiving a failing grade and a bonus cussing out)?

    I met people who sucked at writing like that. I remember my first year English TA telling off the whole class about it and grading everyone harshly. I remember the pleading from some of the students who insisted that they got A’s in high school (that high school must’ve sucked). These n00bs, fresh out of high school wrote better than this academic!

    I did hear a really ridiculous report about Humanities on CBC while driving home one summer evening. It claimed that Humanities students just didn’t get high paying jobs so everyone should go into medical or business professions. Skipping the part about doing things only for money, I thought the remark was horribly inaccurate because there are no direct professions with Humanities like there are with Business or Medicine. Instead, the Humanities prepare you very well for a changing economy where you need to be generalist, highly adaptable and have strong analytical/reasoning skills with the ability to communicate well.

    I don’t think it’s all bad. I don’t imagine this is every school that has bad courses and academics but what is for certain is the Humanities needs to connect the dots for people and show them the value of a liberal arts education. Most people don’t know what Humanities is. I heard often from people that “anyone with half a brain could do that” and they really thought we all just sat around composing poetry! Sure, Humanities courses help you appreciate art, but they also give you analytical skills, critical thinking skills, the ability to digest information quickly, synergize it and communicate it.

    Without an education in the Humanities, what will our future as a society look like when we can’t connect the dots between the past and the present? What will it be like if we are sucked in to all the rhetorical tricks used by politicians and advertisers a like? We’re already in pretty rough shape!

    What would Orwell do? He’d turn over in his grave.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      From time to time, Stephen Law puts up graphs on his blog showing that graduates in philosophy earn more than any other discipline’s graduates.

  13. Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Who says it’s difficult getting a job with, say, an English degree?! I do just fine, thank you very much. Many of the sharpest and most successful businesspeople I know are former English majors.

    Most of the kids I hire out of school know nothing equally, whether they are English majors, business majors, engineers, or whatever. The key to their being hired is seeming like a generally nice, conscientious, responsible people who want to work hard and learn a lot.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I’m one of those successful business folk (well I think I’m successful anyway). I have two honours degrees (because I stayed in school way too long): English and Classics – my real love where I graduated summa cum laude (which I like to change to semper ubi sub ubi for extra LOLz and as a little joke for the Classics grads); I’ve worked in IT since I graduated with my second degree. I’ve met a lot of fellow Humanities grads in IT and in particular, it seems Classics grads really gravitate there. It’s extra odd because Classics grads are somewhat rare but I have a friend I met at my current job who is a great programmer, I know another girl who was doing her Classics PhD (also a programmer) and a guy who I went to school with is a VP at Microsoft. I felt I truly belonged in Classics and loved it there but I also truly belong in IT. It’s all very unusual.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        As I might have mentioned in a comment on a different post, one of my first managers in IT had worked for a firm who hired only Classics graduates as computer programmers. The thinking was that mastery of Latin gave you the skills to code well.

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

          That’s because the UK knows what Classics is :). Most of my best Classics professors were educated in England or Scotland.

        • Occam
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

          I essentially learned programming with Niklaus Wirth, the author of the Pascal language. Before Pascal, Wirth had been an influential figure in the development of ALGOL.

          My university’s computing centre presented ALGOL as “the Latin of programming languages: of decreasing practical but immense educational value”. I confronted Wirth with that statement: “Wrong at all conceivable levels.” In later years, I came to understand how correct that terse rebuttal was.

          As a practitioner of classical languages, I learned the hard way that a thorough understanding of formal systems, or even just subsets thereof, like regex, can be far more valuable in linguistics than all the pretended benefits of Latin&Greek could be in programming.

          • Posted January 8, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

            The sad thing is that some linguists know perfectly well the merits of formal language theory (e.g. Chomsky, whose work is cited in automata theory etc. with good reason). But the study of language by linguists doesn’t seem to filter through well to the language (English, etc.) people. I suspect because it is too “sciency”. Of course it is sciency – but that should not be a problem.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        Many of us here came onto the job market at a time when IT stuff was booming and universities weren’t geared toward the personal computing wave. So there were huge numbers of opportunities for people to learn how to make a computer twirl something on the screen and get a job. I did that… with degrees in Mass Communication and Anthropology I learned to program by writing software to map archaeology sites. Which led to writing GIS software for the city. Which led to… and now I work for a software development company. We have a bunch of people who are musicians by training, classics/humanities types, etc. But these also tend to be the older folk.

        Younger developers are getting degrees designed to give them programming skills. And they have an advantage over “unskilled” types.

        Add to that the fact that young people coming out now are burdened with education debt that is catastrophic in scale and moving into a job market where wages are depressed.

        What rational 19 year old would want to go deeply into debt for a degree in Literature unless mom and dad have the wherewithal to pay for college? Times are different.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know about that. If you look at this report (I think I actually took part in this study; I remember they’d call every few months over a set period of time & see if I was still employed, how much I made, etc.).

          Humanities and Social Science grads to very well in employment and they seem to have the types of skills employers require. The report notes that there is an initial issue with transferring from school to job because there is no direct employment with the degree but once that issue is overcome, the graduates maintain employment in many different fields.

          While a community college in an IT field may be worthwhile and it’s absolutely a good way to go, I find the people I’ve encountered with only that background lack a full richness of knowledge. They can do the one thing they learned and that it is. That is fine for that particular employment but there is so much more to life and in a practical sense, the ability to completely change careers with transferrable skills is something that is only going to increase in demand and job loss and change is accelerating, at least from my personal experience.

          Did I have a lot of debt when I graduated – yes. I was poor. My family lived below the poverty line. Now in Canada it sucks but I still had medical care even though I had no drug plan and couldn’t go to the dentist (both of my degrees involved a lot of tylenol because I had two impacted wisdom teeth – I can’t believe I didn’t get liver failure). Did it all pay off in the end? Absolutely! I ended up fairly successful and well paid but most of all I use my education every day (even if it’s just to make smart ass remarks on occasion).

          • gbjames
            Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

            I don’t know your age. I’m 63. When I headed off to university in 1968 tuition was $150 per semester. It was common for young people to work their way through college. Today, the idea of working your way through college is a joke, or a fantasy, depending on your mood.

            What you consider a lot of debt I would bet doesn’t come close to what four years of college in the US is. (Note: Canadian measures are not comparable to our US pricing. I can say this with some authority since my daughter was able to attend university in Canada, as a foreign student without subsidies, for what in state tuition is here in Wisconsin.)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

              I’m 43. I graduated with my first degree in 1993 then with my second in 1996. My debt was $20,000 but remember I had no one to help me. My parents income was below the poverty line. It was all up to me to get enough money and enough to go to school. I was far more poor than most and couldn’t bear the real starvation of continuing into graduate school even though I had the marks and the recommendations and I did directly compete in the work force with people with specialized community college IT degrees as well as university computer science degrees.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

                These days it is $20,000 per year. And they graduate to find jobs at pathetic pay rates.

                Twenty years ago the economy was very different.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

                I would have gone to university no matter what the cost. Perhaps this is a minority opinion and making a lot of money is important to people but to me being intellectually stimulated meant everything. I mean this truly when I say I would have killed myself if I couldn’t have gone. I hated being stuck in high school and unstimulated and working horrible jobs where people abused me verbally all day or hit on me or even worse stalked me. I didn’t want a life of poverty but more than that, I really didn’t want a life of menial labour. If it hadn’t been for student loans and living in a university town, I’d be dead today because I would not have been able to go. To me it was everything and I never even thought about what I’d do later but as it turns out I was qualified enough to come out and get a job that challenges me and allows me to solve big problems and think….and even that’s not enough! That’s why I’m here in addition to my regular job of solving problems, finding connections, determining how to procure by-in and operationalizing my strategies.

                It is truly a shame that education is denied to those that have the ability and passion. I’m a big socialist where I believe the state should ensure the education of its citizens solely for the purpose of ensuring they are well rounded citizens. It is only better for democracy and progress.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

                Well of course you don’t mean that literally.

                I am not questioning your commitment to going to university. I am questioning the tendency to evaluate choices made by young people now by conditions twenty or forty years ago.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

                Oh no I mean it literally. Absolutely literally!

                And I guess what I’m saying is if I was to do it all again, I’d pay today too and I’d make all the same choices because for me it wasn’t about getting a job at the end but about going there and learning.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

                No you don’t. Would you have insisted on going to university if the cost was the lives of half the people in Australia and all in Africa?

                Yes, it is an absurd price I suggest. But you get the point.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

                No but that is just reductio ad absurdum since we were talking within the context of financial costs not moral costs.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

                OK. Eight trillion dollars.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

                This is the territory you are walking into now.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

                Of course. That’s the trouble with the word “literally”.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

                You used the word “literally”. I assumed you were referring to me killing myself since I said that as “truly”. However this is bringing up a lot of horrible memories for me and I will disengage.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

                I did. But I said you didn’t mean it literally and you said that’s what you meant. In any case it isn’t something we should argue about. We aren’t even married!

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

                Yes, and I thought you were referring to suicide not money.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

                No, no. The money. I thought we were discussing the delta in economic environments between now and the past.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

                Yes I know. We were talking about two different things! OMG Jerry is going to yell at us! :D

        • Kevin
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

          A couple of my co-workers (scientists) complain that their college age kids are interested in the humanities and they ask me (since I was a philosophy major) what is wrong with their kid’s choices and why waste over $30k/year educating them? It is a mystery to me. But I would do it again and I will give that opportunity to my kids gladly. Life is not worth living without having read Wittgenstein at least once, parsed through Wagner’s relationship with Nietzsche, and pondered the future of Rawl’s political liberalism.

          • Gordon
            Posted January 6, 2014 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

            Please reassure me you only need one of these or I might have to be born again or something.

          • gbjames
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

            I need to be careful not to be misunderstood. I’m a fan of liberal education. I think that exposure to a broad range of art, literature, and science is a life-altering thing and am myself the product of such an education.

            But I also can see what the consequences of life-long debt can be for people who enter a constrained job market and few options.

            A person with a degree in Queer Studies is not likely to get a job related to that education. He/she can spend evenings reading and discussing interesting things but a lot of the time is going to be spent fretting about rent and if it will ever be possible to live in an apartment without two roommates. Meanwhile the kid who got an EE degree is very likely to have a decent paying job and still have time to take an evening class in Nineteenth Century opera. One will have the education loans paid off in ten years. The other may never hit that goal.

            This is not a situation I approve of. I deplore it. Education should be free as far as I’m concerned, and government policies of austerity that result in economies like our current one should be abandoned.

            We shouldn’t blame the kids for making rational decisions in the environment we older people have imposed on them.

            • Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:45 am | Permalink

              European students have a big advantage – university is either free or costs between $500 and $5,000 a year, depending on the country and the university. That is how it should be everywhere. In the UK, the Tory government has tried to (and I think even succeeded) to increase the yearly cost of university by 100%, hence the student demonstrations. I think this increase is deplorable.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:24 am | Permalink

                Deplorable, yes. And suicidal for the long term interests of countries that do it.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

                I Canada it’s around $6000 per year depending where you go for tuition unless you are an out of province person going to school in Quebec – then you have to pay the same as a foreign student. Don’t ask.

            • Kevin
              Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

              No one should have to go into lifelong debt for education. That is something society should remedy, and I have little I can suggest to improve the situation now. On the hand, my kids are lucky…I shall pay for their education, it is my burden, not theirs. It is a solution, but definitely not the best.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

                If you’ve got the resources, that’s fine. The vast majority of families do not. Kids are getting screwed and society as a whole is put at risk. It is a very bad situation.

            • Diane G.
              Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

              Well said, couldn’t agree more.

    • Marta
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Kevin
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      A happy humanities major is usually an employed person. An unhappy humanities major might not be so lucky but might be the next Picasso.

  14. Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Anyone can learn to write nonsense. A little practice and I wrote this…

    “Cross cultural information proves to be of far greater significance to subsequent civilisations and their historians than simple generational cultural indicators, which are subject to a continuous revision, and are therefore non-conducive in any historic record, so that a new civilisation built upon the old will feel a discontinuity, and therefore a dystopian sense of their success in realising original conceptions of themselves as a superior civilisation. Axial cultural entities tend to reflect the rate of institution-building, and despotic regimes do not capitulate to the kind of intellectual pressures generated by non-theological philosophers who draw upon the Mediterranean tradition, unless they perceive commercial utility, and derogate the power of the thinker in place of the practicalities of market-driven theories of culture…”

    Do I get my degree?

    • Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      No, I would fail you. Twice, if possible. And so would the vast majority of professors in the humanities.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        OK, I tried harder, and tidied the grammar. Would this serve to impress you, and get me a degree?

        “These differences have greatly influenced the conceptions of accountability of rulers in these civilisations, and the institutional derivatives of these conceptions. The impact of these conceptions on the political dynamism of these civilisations could be most clearly seen in the ways in which major heterodoxies and the cosmology and utopian visions promulgated by them became inter-woven with socio-political movements in these civilisations, in which political actors drew upon cultural reservoirs of their respective civilisations…”

    • Bill
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      sorry to inform you that you have not been shortlisted but you are overqualified.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        One of my pieces is actual scholarship, from the distinguished scholar Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, from ‘The Great Revolutions and the Civilisations of Modernity’by Brill Academic Publications, Leiden, Holland. Now, Bob, your reputation is one the line. Which one is by Eisenstadt? Or are they both bullshit?

        • Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          I don’t get what you are trying to test. Or exactly why. At any rate, you seem to miss the point. In the humanities, most professionals value clarity and evidence-based arguments. If the subject is difficult, then yes, sometimes the language is difficult, and there’s a place for it.

          If you want to read the worst academic writing, I suggest that you look at college composition journals. (omigod)

    • Ali Minai
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      No, you fail because you fell into utter semiotic simplicity. For example, instead of using such patently intelligible phrases as “feel the discontinuity”, you should have used “perceive an implicit, and possibly imaginary, discontiguity”. Please learn to write properly before daring to compete with true intellectuals :-).

  15. Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    It seems that a perfunctory move to reduce the qualitative or aesthetic aspects of an adroit education has more to do with trends in fiscal austerity, anti-intellectualism, and sequestration. There has also been a move to dismantle undergraduate physics majors at some universities (Indiana State University comes to mind). Although some course listings for liberal arts curriculums could be considered “self-indulgent,” it’s the exposure to diversification that matters — especially at the undergraduate level. Universities should not focus on becoming pragmatic vocational sweatshops, or else we’ll end up with a culture of Willards.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      I always found a certain camaraderie with Physics students and Math students. No one really got what they did either and thought it was a silly thing to study when they could be out there doing the doctor and lawyer thing.

      • Posted January 8, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        The motivation for some of us in the humanities (myself included) are very similar to some of those in the pure sciences. I share Popper’s view that philosophy is general cosmology (or “world view” stuff broadly construed) and is thus continuous both in reason to study and in content with physics, etc. I also see it from the other end; my father is a chemist. We both also do/did touches of practice: he became a pharmaceutical chemist and I do computing & philosophy – now more computing.

  16. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I despise post-modernism.

    That said, I’m wondering if this isn’t simply the way things go when you have studies that are so dependant on the specific language? It evolves and changes.

  17. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I can see insisting that training in composition be required for any kind of degree. I can also see encouraging those who are interested to pursue a degree in literature.

    But personally, I would rather have my appendix removed without anesthesia than to have to read another word of John Milton. L

    • Marta
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      That’s how I feel about Thomas Pynchon.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Oh there is worse. I had to read Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in The Bush. After you make the obvious sexual joke, you end up almost in tears every night trying to get through it.

      And I loathe most things Victorian. I hated studying Victorian poetry. Something about Queen Victoria makes my bowels stop moving. My hatred extends to Dickens, which I know is an unpopular opinion. Give me Romantic poetry, Shakespeare & later Jacobians, Chaucer and any of the mediaeval works & I’m happy. Make me read too much 17th C and I will burst into spontaneous tears!

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        Try perusing some of Joseph Smith’s soporific, relentlessly redundant, and indolently contrived drivel.

        3 Nephi: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do.” 27:21

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          True. I actually tried on my own out of morbid curiosity and didn’t have the stuff to continue. :)

      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        I detested Dickens at school and university, but maybe 10 years after graduation I saw a BBC adaptation, tried reading him again, and discovered that he was mostly terrific.

  18. Peter Gruett
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I think the obfuscatory writing of the post-modernists is a bit too easy of a target and can serve as a scapegoat for many a reader of the Wall Street Journal who would just as soon the humanities disappear because they don’t fit into the new model of Universities as outsourced workforce-development and training divisions for corporate America.

    Her hyperbole over the change in requirements (missing the survey requirements), coupled with the irrelevant, tribal lie about the scope of the ACA, tend to suggest that MacDonald herself hasn’t actually thought that deeply about UCLA’s English curriculum and was just fishing for an anecdote on which to hang her polemic. This sounds more like what conservatives are trying to do to climate science with examples like the cow-flatulance study. She’s trying to denigrate the discipline, and especially the parts of it that might discomfort wealthy, white conservatives, so that she can marginalize those crazy liberal viewpoints that suggest that issues of gender, sexuality and race are actually extremely relevant in contemporary western culture and literature.

    • Posted January 6, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your point. Right from the get go, claiming that certain authors have been excluded, when that isn’t the case, just makes the rest of the argument sound baseless. Plus, it just seems rather weird to claim to be in favor of making people think—encouraging them to question their assumptions and views and recognize human folly—while opposing efforts that are trying to do just that. The point of these various efforts (some admittedly better ideas than others) to be more inclusive are to make people question the traditional view of only including white male authors in the curriculum. But people love to turn things around and ask liberals to prove that they really favor being open-minded by being open-minded to discrimination and exclusion. It doesn’t occur to them that entirely excluding authors of certain races, genders, etc. is a bigger disgrace than spending slightly less time on the few authors that already get the most attention.

      I haven’t read Chaucer, but I have read Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, and some Milton. Ovid and Virgil are on my To Read list. I wouldn’t give up reading these authors, and I’m personally convinced that The Divine Comedy (no matter how much I disagree with Dante’s religious views) is one of the most wonderful works of literature in the world. At the same time, I also believe in being more inclusive, making an effort read writing by people of different races, genders, etc. because there are great works by people of all demographics.

      The article seems a convenient way to ignore the very real problems of the high cost of higher education (which may push students into going into what they perceive to be more “practical” majors) and of curricula which have historically been very exclusive and discriminatory.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        I’m glad Virgil is on your To Read list. It’s not as great as the Odyssey but it’s pretty great and I’ve read it many times (first being exposed to it in my high school Latin class). If you’d like to explore more Classics, may I suggest some quick reads in the form of plays? You may have read the obvious: Oedipus Cycle: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone and of course The Agamemnon but treat yourself to some fine Greek New Comedy in the form of The Dyskolos of Menander. We have the New Atheists, but the Ancient Greeks, they had the New Comedy! :)

        I’m one of those heretics that like the type of literature some would look down their noses at, namely science fiction. Really good science fiction largely gets ignored buy academia and it shouldn’t and related to that I agree that all sorts of literature written by all sorts of people should be explored. I think Steven Pinker would agree with me since he suggests that the rise of the novel afforded a greater number of people the opportunity to experience the lives of others they would normally never come into contact with and in so doing helped increase empathy in general.

        One of my favourite poems that I learned about in my first year English class in a huge lecture hall was We Real Cool. I loved it and if it weren’t for that class, I never would have discovered it. I think it’s safe to say, I wouldn’t have found many great works, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the works of William Blake or even the poems of Margaret Atwood (and I’m a Canadian). Here is Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem that I never forgot:

        We Real Cool

        The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

        We real cool. We
        Left school. We

        Lurk late. We
        Strike straight. We

        Sing sin. We
        Thin gin. We

        Jazz June. We
        Die soon.

        • Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

          Thanks very much for the recommendations! I work in healthcare myself, so most of my knowledge of literature comes from what I learned in high school and a few college classes, plus what I find on my own. It’s always nice to add more things to my list of books to read. :)

        • Robert Seidel
          Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          I read Dyskolos, but I better liked his Samia (which is only 4/5 complete, alas). You will think “This is Screwball” all the time when reading it, with just the same misunderstandings and entanglements. All these tropes we are so familiar with, from Shakespeare to Hollywood, really go back to New Comedy.

    • Christopher
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes, yes, yes!!! I have been reading all the comments hoping to see someone makes these exact points.

      If he felt those sentences were bad, someone should introduce Jerry to Proust.

      And I did chuckle at the unintended irony of Jerry’s lament over the how the love of reading has been sacrificed to “identity politics”. Could not someone have said the same of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”?

      • Jo5ef
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:44 am | Permalink

        Hey, hey, leave Proust out of this!
        His prose is marvellous, like being smothered in a vast, scented, soft, luxurious blanket.

        • Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:47 am | Permalink

          Hear hear! C’est bien vrai ça! À la recherche du temps perdu… :)

  19. Kevin
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Physics opened up my eyes to world, and it is that which I am now, but first I was a philosopher (BA).

    Life and science without the humanities is an existence of despair and utter depravity.

  20. Kubrick
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    The real tragedy here is the way that UCLA’s decision subtends a broader hegemonic re-articulation of pre-Cartesian ideologies. The discursive strategies of neoliberal capitalism are diachronically unmasked by the deeper theoretical schisms of our current post-phenomenological Weltanschauung.

  21. Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Pretty close to 65 years ago I graduated from an English university with a humanities degree Throughout my school life I had received what is known in England as a Classical Education, After I had finished my formal education George Bernard Shaw’s definition of a Classical Ed. was brought to my attention. It is,”The main benefit of a classical education is that it enables those who have had one to accept, with great equanimity, the comparative poverty in which they must live by virtue of having had a
    classical education. IT was not a career path for obvious reasons until I was well into my 60’s.

  22. Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Ok. So Butler and Bhabha are guilty of writing some terrible sentences. And generally writing in ways that may make it difficult for someone to understand on first, second, maybe even third, fourth, fifth blush. Fine. I certainly won’t say that the “award-winning” sentences are examples of good writing, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely opaque to everyone reading them either. To me, they instantly feel familiar, but I realize this is also because of my background (PhD in philosophy from a program that included heaps and heaps of feminism, post-colonialism, identity conversations, that old big bugaboo postmodernism, as well as the usual suspects [Plato, Kant, Hegel, and so on]). If I had attempted to read Butler’s _Gender Troubles_ or _Bodies that Matter_ as an undergraduate without any preparation, I would have been lost. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have thrown the book down; I would like to think I would have tried to work my way through it. As it was, I still had to grunt and work my way through her texts as a graduate student. Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Yes. Sure, there are times when I wish her sentences were easier, but they aren’t. On the other hand, it also took me at least three if not four laborious, cover-to-cover reads through Kant’s _Critique of Pure Reason_ before it made any sense to me at all. The language was beyond obtuse. But the feeling I had when I finally “got it,” when that obtuse language seemed to melt like butter, it was stupendous. Not in any sort of self-congratulatory way, but that feeling you have when something finally clicks—that intrinsic “glowy” outcome of thinking and learning. All disgruntled grammar critiques asides for a moment, aren’t there always texts that are going to be obtuse to someone outside of the particular disciplines within which they are written? There are many times when I am not able to keep up with heavily scientific explanations of subjects, but I am not a scientist. And what about the value of writing in ways that challenge on all levels–including the way(s) texts and are constructed? To borrow a Butler idea, both she and Bhabha are performers too. So yes, they are deliberately doing tricks with language (arguably bad ones to some, but to others, maybe not).

    It’s a hairy issue to be sure: At the same time I recognize the need and value of “accessible” text, there is also value in having to work to understand a text too. This is another way one can learn to think. I wouldn’t begin to claim that this would be a universal experience–particularly with the convoluted ways of Butler and Bhabha, but it is not as if they aren’t coming out of certain traditions themselves. And writing and responding to those traditions and styles.

    As an aside, I was surrounded by diverse students in my graduate program—some detested postmodernism and were more traditionally inclined; other’s wanted to explode any and all traditional canons and read and think along the edges and in the fissures between traditional texts—there were students in both groups who were intelligent, those who knew how to think and write and had much to offer. No, the identity group people weren’t so narrowly focused that they were intellectually soft in any way. If someone wasn’t as clever, it often had more to do with their approach toward the texts they steeped themselves in rather than the particular texts themselves.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I guess I’m puzzled why one would choose to work in a tradition of obfuscation and bad authorship. This is rather like arguing that genital mutilation is not so bad because it is part of a tradition.

      It is the responsibility of authors to make themselves understood. Failure to do so should not be fobbed of on readers for having failed to put in enough time.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t realize that the entire tradition was one of obfuscation and bad authorship. That wasn’t my point at all. But Butler (for example) is much more than obfuscation.

        There are many kinds of texts and many types of reading. What is wrong with having to spend time with a text?

        • gbjames
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

          Nothing is wrong with spending time with a text unless it is a poorly written text. Then it is a waste of time. Nearly always poor writing is a reflection of poor thinking. It is the author’s responsibility to think clearly and communicate clearly.

          Why do you blame readers for the failure of bad writing?

          • Posted January 8, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

            The problem comes with books like those of Kant. They have been incredibly influential, so if one wants a historical overview of human thought (or even just philosophy) one should read them. Unfortunately, Kant seems to have invented the idea that one has to be obscure and redundant even if one has important (albeit wrongheaded, IMO) things to say.

            There’s a cut “edition” of the CofPR that is something like 50 pages long, according to Catherine Wilson (then at UBC), but I have never seen it.

            • Posted January 8, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

              Oh, I should add that later “thinkers” used the tradition of being obscure to hide the fact they really had nothing much to say. I will avoid contentiousness, but I will note that this was the accusation of Schopenhauer (who is clear enough to be clearly wrong a lot, which is a virtue) even in the early 19th century.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      I don’t mind taking a time with a text (hell, I had to read Kant in German and Plato in Greek) but if I’m going to take time with a text I can only justify spending such time because the concepts are difficult and interesting, not because the text is convoluted and unintelligible.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        Of course! But sometimes what starts out as convoluted may become less so after more reading, no? And what some people find convoluted others may not. Frankly, I found Kant unintelligible at first. Like I said, not everyone will click with Butler or Bhabha. My response was about a lot more than those two in particular. Perhaps I should not have used them as my starting point.

        • Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          No, actually, I am glad I used them as my starting point! ;) I rescind that caveat. Even though my post is not just about standing up for two badly written sentences that may actually resonate with someone somewhere, but not necessarily me.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

          Lori Anne, why do you keep excusing bad writing? Why do you keep blaming readers for the failure of authors?

          • Christopher
            Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

            If I had put down a book every time I came to a difficult sentence, I would have gotten nowhere. It is not the author’s responsibility to spoon feed every reader that may come along.

            Don’t get peeved about not understanding a sentence in a 600 level class if you are an introductory reader in that field.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:21 am | Permalink

              I’ll ask you the same question. Why do you excuse bad authorship? The lazy workman blames his tools and the poor writer blames his readers.

              What is just a bit insulting is to suggest that the readers of this website are a bunch of uneducated lazy roobs. As it happens the education level is quite high here and the readership can distinguish good from poor authorship. We we read and discuss complex subjects all the time quite well and don’t expect to be “spoon fed”.

      • Robert Seidel
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        Wahrheitsliebe und klarer Stil
        Gehen Hand in Hand.
        Gegenbeispiel:
        Kant.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, and every time I hear “Kant”, I hear The Philosopher’s Song:Immanuel Kant was a real pissant/Who was very rarely stable….

          • fivegreenleafs
            Posted January 6, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

            Thanks… now I won’t get that song out of my head the next couple of days ;)

      • fivegreenleafs
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        Hear, hear!

        I have a hard time understanding why you would intentionally (self)? handicap yourself like that as a writer.

  23. Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    One thing that always surprises me is the knee-jerk animosity towards feminism; yet vindicated aspects of feminist theory remain one of the most effective gateways to eschewing cultural constructions of patriarchal religions, the perpetuation of male bonded coalitionary violence, and gender oppression. Just ask Supriya Dwivedi and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

    • Christopher
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      I think Jerry did a disservice to label these studies as “identity politics”. It is like he did the work for conservative right wing faction by adopting such a term rather than realizing that women studies, gender studies, latino studies are all human studies.

      How do you denigrate a study of a group like female Carribean writers? It seems short sighted to lump them as all under the rubric of identity politics without even knowing the themes they address with their works.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        To be fair, MacDonald labelled those studies “identity politics”. Jerry just borrowed her phrase to discuss it more.

        • Christopher
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

          I have to disagree. He didn’t just “borrow” it, he used the concept as a contrasting point to further his own point bemoaning the lack of reading for the sheer enjoyment of reading. It was sloppy. If it was used polemically, it should have been identified as such.

          • Christopher
            Posted January 6, 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

            Furthermore, Jerry then made the argument that narrow inquiry into these fields were tantamount to being “damned(sic) tributaries”, thus sharing a pejorative interpretation of these fields of studies if they are interpreted via the conservative worldview. Whereas, if he would have reflected upon the narrowness of many areas of theoretical science which share no practical application to any facet of human endeavor, he would immediately see that gender studies of Latina women at least have something to say about millions of individuals and can in no way be simply boxed into a political identity argument. It makes me wonder what, if anything, he has read in these fields. I doubt he discuss a single book in the curriculum of UCLA’s diversity program. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. The irony is that he complained about poor writing style and then put forth a post which hit pedantic writing style, identity politics and some amorphous appeal to reading for the sheer enjoyment of reading. What would Orwell do? Well, as Christopher Hitchens said, it’s impossible to say what Orwell would say. But, I think Jerry should read “Burmese Days”.

            • Posted January 6, 2014 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

              I’ve read “Burmese Days,” thank you. And it’s fine to discuss these issues in classes on polotics or sociology, but I’m talking about literature classes.

              Your comment, by the way, is rude, since you have no idea what I’ve read, as evidenced by your last sentence.

  24. Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    That is quite a tragedy and bodes ill for future generations.

  25. John Hunt
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    “enrollment and interest dropping like a stone. I’m not sure exactly why that is”

    I have a hypothesis. Many freshman humanities subjects are being relegated to on-line courses. Although it’s probably possible to get some utility from such a course, in my experience, it almost never happens. When we tell students that a required course in World Lit or Philosophy isn’t important enough to require face-to-face interaction, they look at it as an easy A (which it often is) or a bald attempt by the University to squeeze more tuition money from students (which it probably also is).

    • Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      I think that is a great point. These topics need face-to-face, real (and hearty) conversation.

    • Posted January 8, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      And this is why I have come to the conclusion that online philosophy courses must replace the textbook and (some uses) of the TA, not the meetings. Wilfried Sieg’s use of CMU’s own “online logic course” is a good example to follow: they use it to compress (successfully) traditional lectures and tutorial/recitations/conferences which focus only on skills and instead can have more time for discussions and projects and that sort of thing. I don’t know if this would work at other places where the students would not be as dilligent or motivated as they are at CMU, though.

  26. Posted January 6, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    How about this sentence from an anthropologist–Marshall Sahlins latest ouvre?
    “In this connection one may well ask, with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009), whether the constructivist preoccupation with optation—since it singularly problematizes certain relations of consanguinity while assuming no such argument is necessary for the obviously “made” character of affinity—does not subtly perpetuate our own folkloric distinctions of “nature” and “law,” biogenetic substance” and “code for conduct?””
    58 words, 4 unexplained jargon terms, and a triple negative. Butler and Bhabha would be proud that their style has spread into the sciences

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:50 am | Permalink

      Anthropology is a science?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:52 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry. Knee-jerk reaction at reading a sentence that might have come out of Dawkins’ “Postmodernism Disrobed” ;)

      • Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        According to the AAA mission statement it is. The word science was hotly contested but it remains in.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

        The good parts of Anthropology are science. There are other bits, too. It is a broad discipline.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        Social Science. My alma mater called it such but graduates did not receive a BSc but a BA. I still regret that I didn’t do my anthropology degree. I stupidly refused because I needed to take a stats course. I could’ve done that in the summer when I had more time to concentrate on it.

      • Posted January 8, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Students in the anthro dept. at McGill told me that the dept. had basically fissioned with two (physical on the one side, cultural on the other) groups not talking to each other. I met them in one of Bunge’s philosophy of social science classes, and they hoped to see how the philosophical debates were resulting in this split. Unfortunately, it seems (and my reading bears some of this out) a lot of the pomo nonsense has ruined a lot of cultural anthro. Terrible.

        (Geertz is one source here, but also “critical theory” from English departments, which is …)

  27. Ginger
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    If 57% of students opt out of a humanities major and 60% opt out of STEM majors (according to other studies) in what are uni students majoring?

    • chascpeterson
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      Communications
      Marketing
      Accounting
      and the Social Sciences

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:42 am | Permalink

        Marketing and Accounting are Business degrees & Communications is Humanities. Maybe Social Science but unlikely – in my alma mater, Phys Ed. is a Social Science.

      • ginger
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Terrific. That’s just what the USA needs — more advertisers, PR droids, bean counters, and attorneys.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Must be Phys. Ed.!

      • Kevin
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        Physical education and music are two areas America could use a lot more emphasis in their educational system (K-8). I would encourage more well-rounded degrees offered by colleges in these areas and make them more attractive, because those teachers can be extraordinary role models for young kids.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

          Well according to stats, that’s probably what everyone’s taking. Or maybe the stats are wrong.

  28. Diane G.
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    sub

  29. MikeN
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    Interest and enrollment in the Humanities dropping like a stone would indeed be a crisis- if it were actually happening

    Enrollment in the humanities did indeed “drop like a stone”- in the 1970s. Since then it has held pretty steady.

    http://benschmidt.org/Degrees/#HumRatio

    And even then the biggest drop in enrollment was among women. What happened was female students who had few career options other than teaching began to go into other fields- and with the expanded opportunities there was also a drop in women who went to college to get their “Mrs” degree.

    College became a much more career-oriented choice,with huge expansions in degrees in business, health care, technical fields and of course, administration .

    http://sappingattention.blogspot.tw/

    http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/25/as-more-attend-college-majors-become-more-career-focused/

    There was a boost in humanities enrollment in the 90s, followed by a long, mild decline through the 200s, accelerating with the crash.

    Underlying economic and sociological factors factors, yes; postmodernism and deconstructionism, no.

  30. Stephen
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Smacks of “political correctness” to me. Those sentences-cum-paragraphs from Bhabha and Butler look like the blibber-blabber that comes from IT “management” now as well as the hundreds of job descriptions I’ve browsed in the past few months.

  31. Kevin
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    The post on David Silbey’s page is illuminating, but it does not reflect what will happen in the future. Of course there is no way to predict. And even though there does not appear to be a recent collapse of the humanities, there sure is a feeling the humanities (certainly humanities departments) are being strangled and that will have complex consequences to academia and society for some time to come.

  32. Hempenstein
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Re. the winning sentence at the end, it probably inevitable. Old English and Middle English have been around so long that New English was bound to happen, with ‘New English’ pronounced the way ‘New Atheist’ is in some circles.

  33. Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on lit! and commented:
    From the post:
    “But surely another reason for the demise of humanities is that they’re committing slow seppuku by pandering to trends like postmodernism and, lately, political pressures. That makes them rigid, ideological, and, frankly, no fun. A diversity of views cannot bloom, for there are now approved ways of thinking. …
    “Where in here is the sheer love of reading, an appreciation that goes beyond identity politics to embrace the sheer diversity of the human ideas and emotions found within any group? You can’t immerse yourself in the stream of human thought if you’re dammed within your own little tributary. “

  34. Dominic
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    The US university undergraduate system differs so much from that in the UK that it is hard to make comparisons. However I thought that here we have had a drop off in the sciences rather than the humanities.

    I never read classic English texts. Despite going to a grammar school I only did English Language O-level not English Literature, as I was pushed to do music – which I failed!

    I read for my own interest, & I think I have a far greater knowledge of history than most of other people, while the understanding of English literature I have is mostly second hand.

  35. jacquesderridiers
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    I’ll try and address both this article and MacDonald’s one together. The biggest issue I take is that both articles seem to bizarrely conflate the humanities in its totality with English studies. Shouldn’t the article really be titled ‘The End Times for English Studies?’. But then that wouldn’t pull readers in quite the same way, now would it?

    MacDonald’s article cites postmodernism as the cause of English (sorry…’Humanities’) studies’ decline. But postmodernism is such a wide field that I really can’t see it running the risk of being ‘rigid, ideological, and, frankly, no fun’ (at least if it’s taught properly). When the author says that ‘a diversity of views cannot bloom, for there are now approved ways of thinking': hasn’t this always been a problem? Throughout history, certain ways of thinking have always been privileged (rightly or wrongly) over others. This is the case in our time and it will be so as long as humans are able to communicate. ‘Postmodern’ trends like deconstruction or the (very historically rooted) work of Michel Foucault are precisely concerned with challenging everything that is rigid and ideological in thought, both contemporary thought and thought through the ages. If taught properly, these trends and thinkers should mobilise just the kind of argumentative thinking and openness to ideas that run against the grain, which is exactly what this article hopes for but accuses ‘humanities’ of not providing. Put another way, I don’t see why this concern over the stifling of argument and non-approved ways of thinking should only hold for a small section of the humanities, rather than be a concern we shall always be leveling at every university department.

    Similarly, ‘Where in here is the sheer love of reading, an appreciation that goes beyond identity politics to embrace the sheer diversity of the human ideas and emotions found within any group?’ This is in response to MacDonald’s quote about how ‘course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity’ in courses like ‘Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory’. But this is creating a straw man for these different areas of study and often running completely counter to what they try and promote. I obviously can’t speak for them all, but take queer theory for instance. This is a field that is concerned precisely with bringing out ‘sheer diversity’. arguing that we think about gender beyond a rigid male/female binary and instead recognise the endless and very complicated ways in which gender is expressed (and not just by people who consider themselves gay). Additionally, one finds a deep attentiveness to history (running counter to one of MacDonald’s bugbears), looking at the ways in which notions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ have changed over the centuries and even today have very different manifestations in different cultures (i.e.: the fact that Scottish men often wear kilts, which would be considered ‘womanly’ or ‘queer’ in many other countries). This demonstrates a deep attentiveness to history and ‘sheer diversity’.

    About the only thing I roughly agree with is the issue the writer takes with the difficulty of the writing. This kind of elitism irks me considerably. That said, Butler is explicitly engaging here with the historical trajectory of particular theoretical/philosophical trends. She’s looking at a shift in the analysis of social power relations from a structuralist to a poststructuralist paradigm. It is a discussion ABOUT the theory, so it makes sense she’d use the jargon. This article is intended for, and is only of use to, professionals or people who have a deep interest in structuralism and poststructuralism. That’s clearly its readership and those people will be able to make sense out of what Butler is saying. So it would be like accusing a scientist at a conference or in a journal for using jargon that only the scientists there understood, ignoring the fact that the conference or journal is not a classroom. That same scientist would not be barreling ahead the same way in an undergrad lecture hall (if he/she is any good at teaching, of course). Similarly, that Butler essay would never be prescribed to an undergrad and there are other essays and publications by her (Undoing Gender is a good example) that make for far more simple reading.


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