I remember going through my high school years almost painfully aware that I was one of the few students at all interested in the humanities. My classes were full of Honors English students, but they were generally there purely to get college credits for their resumes when they applied to the Engineering programs at their top nine schools. Often, I was the only person who did any of the readings and discussions came down to what I thought and what the teacher thought.
While this might not appear to be a bad thing upon first glance, there was always the accompanying implication that to be “smart,” a student had to excel at the sciences. If I were to pull up a list of the “Most Likely to Succeed” students throughout my high school career, they would all inevitably be students with a strong inclination towards Calculus and Physics, not philosophy or literature. In fact, there were no philosophy classes at my high school, and those of us who would have liked to take more AP humanities courses were just SOL.
When I reached the upper division lit courses at UCLA, my professors praised us for choosing a life “of ideas” over a life “of material wealth.” It was understood that one could not be “successful” in today’s culture with a humanities degree–unless one pursued an academic career. All of my classes, therefore, were taught in a way that was not meant to enlighten. Instead, we were prepared to take the GRE. While I learned many interesting things in school, I also learned many not-so-interesting things that I would be required to know to get into grad school.
(In addition, so much of what makes the humanities interesting has been lost as literary criticism has surpassed literature in grad school. In an attempt to rival the cut-and-dry, formulaic approach of what is “respectable” (i.e. math and science), literature has been quanitified into schools of thought, branches of criticism–not expanded with the exploration of more ideas. It is for this reason that I doubt I will ever pursue a Masters or Ph.D. in the field.)
Beyond the pressures present in the field, however, is the rapidly shrinking width of the field, as Patricia Cohen explores in the article link above:
“During the second half of the 20th century, as more and more Americans went on to college, a smaller and smaller percentage of those students devoted themselves to the humanities. The humanities’ share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the heyday in the mid- to late ’60s, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new database recently released by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Currently they account for about 8 percent (about 110,000 students), a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade. The low point for humanities degrees occurred during the bitter recession of the early 1980s.”
I, on the other hand, stuck to my idealistic guns and studied my passion. I took advantage of the inexpensive classes available at my community college and took 22-25 units a semester, when full time was classified as around 12 units. I took astronomy, music, history, philosophy, film history, sociology, psychology, and many science field courses. I did the best I could to make myself a Renaissance thinker.
I now work as a Receptionist.
That really isn’t the point, however. We need people who are classically trained in how to think. For all of our scientific advancement (due to an emphasis on the sciences), we have yet to progress at all from a humanist or ethical standpoint. In today’s world, there is no questioning of whether or not we should do something just because we can. These issues are boundless: stem cell research, cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene therapy, and so much more. Currently, the only people who object to these kinds of procedures do so from a conservative religious point of view, who claim they are against God’ plan and that humans are trying to somehow subvert God’s role in the universe.
What we need, however, are people who look at how these procedures affect us, all of us–people and animals and plants and the future of all of us. We can’t expect scientists to do this. They are taught from day one to press the boundaries of the possible, to see if something can be done. The more we exclude the humanities from education, the less likely we are to progress from a moral standpoint.
In the words of Abraham Simpson, “I’m afraid of the future.”