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How to Recruit for the Humanities

In the most recent American Freshman Survey, the top reason for going to college was “to be able to get a better job,” with 85.9 percent of respondents rating it as “very important.” Only half of the respondents rated “to make me a more cultured person” as “very important” (50.3 percent).

No wonder the humanities now collect only around 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees, including history.  (See the Humanities Indicators project for handy compilations of data.)  According to the MLA, all the foreign languages combined (!) pull in only 1.05 percent of all four-year degrees.  Even though knowledge of Asian and Middle Eastern languages is, indeed, a potent job skill in numerous areas of business, government, diplomacy, and the military, the humanities strike ambitious 19-year-olds as merely an academic pursuit.  Shakespeare, Dante, Wordsworth, George Eliot . . . they seem like little more than homework assignments.

Survival depends on undergraduate demand, however, and if the humanities wish to slow their steady progress toward marginality, they need to draw more students into their classrooms.  Nothing impresses a dean like calls from  parents who say, “My daughter can’t get into her Intro to Lit course. What are we paying you so much for, anyway?”

I believe that recent history shows the way toward improvement.  Or rather, it shows the way away from off-putting tactics.  What is the appeal of the humanities?

It is not that which so many humanities professors have invested in: critical thinking, identity studies, race-class-gender, political criticism, or adversarial stances of various kinds.

It is, instead, precisely what undergraduates think is the other-worldliness of the humanities: Shakespeare, Dante . . . Instead of trying to sell the humanities as job preparation (though I believe it is verifiably so) or as a prime builder of political, media, and other forms of contemporary savvy, humanities professors should go with their traditional ground in Great Books.  This is our authority, and it’s our special claim.  When we highlight our instruction in critical thinking, the sciences say, “You think we don’t teach critical thinking, too?”  When we talk about identity, they reply, “Have you seen the research built up over the decades by socio-biologists, demographers, . . .?”  But when we talk about Hades, Inferno, Pandemonium, and “other people,” our non-humanities colleagues have to listen.

In other words, in the competitive terrain of the campus, we have to focus on  things nobody else does, things that still have authority in the larger culture.  A professor who can recite 20 lines from Essay on Man is more impressive and captivating than one who can recount a specimen of post-colonial theory.

We have started a small Great Books program at Emory this year.  It has only four courses so far, but the early numbers are encouraging.  Bottom line: It looks like student demand exceeds our supply of spaces.  We make no claim to vocational training, no appeal to contemporary relevance.  Instead, we acquaint students with long-ago texts and old ideas, and we regard “long-ago” and “old” as ameliorative terms.

In that, we have a kind of an adversarial posture, too.  While the curriculum slides ever more into workplace readiness and social relevance, we offer an alternative, a reprieve from the pressures of the post-graduate anticipations.  The materials are difficult and remote, but they develop capacities for thought–not for skills and resumes, but for contemplation (note the root of that word).  In other words, humanitas.  Following the signs of the times is a losing tactic.  Sticking to the works of the ages is a better way.

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