February 02, 2008

The Purpose of a Humanities Education

Dear Friends:

I am currently in the process of being appointed Visiting Professor at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico City campus, Dept. of Humanities; in fact, my first seminar for the humanities faculty is on February 6. Since colleagues have warned me that I may be asked to do some media interviews regarding the "purpose of a humanities education," I thought I should write something up with a view to talking points on the subject, so that I might have something coherent to say. The essay below (for better or worse) is what I came up with.--mb

"No people can be both ignorant and free"–Thomas Jefferson

"If ignorance were bliss, Americans would be ecstatic"–US bumper sticker

Before we can ask what the purpose of the humanities is, perhaps we should ask what the purpose of a university is, or even what the purpose of a nation is.

If the purpose is money and power, then the obvious model is the United States. At least, in the short run. Because in the long run, this has not worked out very well for the US. As I have argued elsewhere, after 230 years the country seems to be on its last legs. Economically, the US is in deep trouble, with some experts predicting a Depression-style crash within ten to fifteen years. In terms of power, it seems clear enough that the US is rapidly losing influence around the world, with the European Union and China set to replace it in its hegemonic role. A major reason for this decline is that the center of the US value system is money, power, and technology. Not that there is anything wrong with these things, so long as they constitute means and not ends. But in the US, they became ends, purposes in and of themselves; which meant that finally, the country had no purpose at all–it became spiritually bankrupt. While it is by now too late for the United States to reverse course, I would personally like to see Mexico (and the rest of the world) avoid this unhappy fate. Not unrelated to this is the fact that most US universities lost their purpose as well, and I am thus hoping that Mexican universities will rethink their admiration for their US counterparts. Consider the following facts:

1. In 1965, something like 75% of the freshman class in the US said that they were in college "to find a meaningful philosophy of life." Forty years later (even less), 75% said their goal was to become rich.

2. In the 18-24 age group in the US, 87% can’t locate Iraq or Iran on a world map, and 11% can’t locate the US(!).

3. During 2003-4, 20% of US undergraduates majored in business, whereas 1.6% majored in English, and 1.3% in history.

4. 20% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, and an additional 9% say they don’t know which revolves around which.

5. In 1982, 56.9% of Americans read a work of creative literature during the previous twelve months. This dropped to 46.7% in 2002–i.e. a loss of 10% in twenty years.

6. Newspapers continue to go out of business in the US for lack of readership, and book sales to stagnate. There has even been some discussion in the US as of late as to whether reading will become a kind of "quaint hobby" in the future.

7. Educational researchers in the US have recently identified a phenomenon known as "negative learning". A University of Connecticut survey of 2005 revealed that at sixteen prestigious universities, including Yale, Chicago, Berkeley, and MIT, the seniors knew less about American history, government, foreign relations, and the economy than the freshmen did.

8. The current president of the United States, who holds degrees from Harvard and Yale, is notoriously uncurious about the world and has a difficult time speaking correct English.

What enabled all of this to happen? Three factors come to mind:

1. Increasingly, after World War II, a college education in the US became little more than preparation for a job. "Learning for learning’s sake" came to be regarded a kind of luxury.

2. American universities adopted the model of the corporation, and teaching was in turn modeled on the corporate-client relationship: the professor is there as a "provider" of a "commodity," which the students "purchase" from the institution. Once education became commodified in this way, respect for it basically evaporated. It became purely instrumental, rather than being seen as a way of life, or a way of deepening one’s understanding of the world and of oneself.

3. As the humanities lost respect, many teachers of the humanities lost respect for their own discipline. By the 1970s, a curious phenomenon known as "postmodernism" emerged, in which professors not only abandoned the search for truth, but began to argue that it didn’t even exist. This was a formula for academic irrelevance, if not suicide.

The humanities exist to ask–and answer–the question, What are we living for?, or What is the meaning of human life? If, as in the United States, the Mexican university answer is going to be the US national-corporate one, i.e., To make money, or, To have more technological gadgets, then education and the nation have no real future. For only the humanities can address these questions in a nontrivial way. If Mexico is to have a future, its universities are going to have to make the humanities central to the education of their students. Sound far-fetched? No need to take my word for it; for the counterexample, just–look north.