American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 6

The Humanities in the University:
Strategies for the 1990s


The University and the Larger Community
Roderick S. French
Merrill D. Peterson

Margaret B. Wilkerson

Humanistic Research
W. R. Connor
J. Hillis Miller

Teaching the Humanities in the University

Susan Resneck Parr
Dean, Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences
University of Tulsa

The inspirations for my remarks this morning were H. L. Mencken and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland: Mencken, because he insisted some problems are so difficult they can’t be solved in a million years, unless someone thinks about them for five minutes, and the Cheshire Cat because he responded to Alice’s question, “Would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?” by saying, “That depends on where you want to get to.” And so as I thought about where we want to get to with the teaching of the humanities in my allotted few minutes this morning, my first inclination was to frame the question in its most basic and traditional terms, what is it that an educated person in our society, should know and understand? Asked in this way the question almost inevitably leads back to the humanities, since I suspect most of us in this room would agree that educated people should have some knowledge and understanding of the significant ideas and events and figures and texts—literary, historical, philosophical, religious, political and artistic—of their own culture, and that of other cultures as well.

But in fact, I am afraid that the question is the wrong one, for even though America does profess to be a nation dedicated to educating all its citizens, the truth is that in our colleges and universities we are primarily engaged in mass training—vocational and preprofessional—at the secondary level as well as the collegiate one. For example, in 1986 fewer than one in four entering college freshmen intended to major in the liberal arts—compared to 40% in 1970. The numbers of students interested in studying the humanities has declined even more precipitously. Specifically, in 1966 approximately 18% of college graduates were humanities majors; by 1985, only a third of that number or approximately 6% had chosen the humanities. Such numbers also reflect changing student attitudes about the purposes of education. For example, 20 years ago approximately 44% of entering freshmen identified “being very well-off financially” as a goal. Now 71% do so. Simultaneously, those seeking to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life” declined from 70% in 1970 to 50% in 1980 to 43% in 1986.

Although there are some heartening signs of a slightly renewed interest in the liberal arts among college students, these statistics suggest that many of our students are motivated by socioeconomic considerations rather than intellectual ones. Certainly it is the case that more and more of our students believe that the American dream is no longer alive and well, and so they see preprofessional training as offering them the surest road to financial success. Even though CEO’s of major firms (many of whose speech writers are liberal arts graduates) and deans of professional schools argue otherwise and affirm the value of the liberal arts for future doctors, lawyers, engineers and corporate employees, our students and their worried parents believe otherwise. So, unhappily, do most of the professional accrediting agencies. For example, the engineering accrediting board, ABET, requires undergraduate engineering students to complete only 16 credit hours of courses in the humanities and the social sciences, and they count writing and foreign language classes as humanities rather than skills courses. The same dismissive attitude toward the humanities characterizes a great many state teacher certification boards.

Within the academy, the humanities often suffer because the allocation of resources at many, if not most, institutions is enrollment-driven. Thus new faculty lines are going to computer science not to classics. Similarly, given the new emphasis on technology, college and university resources often now are committed to engineering and the sciences for equipment and facilities—both of which, while undeniably important, are enormously expensive.

Although there is no question but that students and colleges and universities are responding to social currents, the point I want to make this morning is that those of us who teach in Arts and Sciences disciplines are to a large extent responsible for this shift. Rather harshly stated, I think that we have abdicated, that we have quite readily and for decades simply given our students away. For example, we led the charge in the 1960s and 1970s to eliminate general education requirements, but we have not simultaneously offered our students compelling reasons to value the liberal arts, to choose to study it.

Perhaps most significantly, we have given away future teachers. Typically Arts and Sciences faculties across the country have not wanted to be bothered with this group of students, who of course become the very people to prepare our future students. Instead, we have allowed—and perhaps even encouraged—education faculty to teach their own version of the liberal arts in methods courses. The result has been disastrous. The state of Oklahoma, for example, requires 70 semester hours of education courses for K-8 teachers but no literature other than children’s literature and no science outside of methods courses. The consequences: a future middle-school English teacher is likely to have studied no literature at all while a future eighth-grade science teacher is as minimally prepared.

Because our education majors inevitably go on to teach what they know, many of our schools have also abandoned the teaching of the liberal arts and especially the humanities in any serious way. The study of literature has now given way to what is known as “language arts” while history and government courses have been abolished in favor of social studies. Indeed, today’s high school graduates on the average complete only one-and-one-half years of history during their high school career, and only 16 states mandate a world history course. Because our college freshmen come to us unprepared in the humanities, they either shy away from humanities courses or look upon them as burdens. At the same time, those who teach freshmen can assume no common core of knowledge, and so must always begin at the beginning. College level courses now cover material once typical in the high school curriculum. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

Our actions in terms of foreign language requirements are equally instructive. For example, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, many foreign language departments agreed to abolish language requirements out of the misguided notion that they didn’t want to teach to captive audiences. The results here are also discouraging in that many high schools eliminated language programs because such courses were no longer necessary for college admission. Latin suddenly became a frill. And now, in some places, computer languages are being considered substitutes for foreign languages. In fact, this is the case in some doctoral programs in education.

In recent years, all of this has been compounded by our uncertainty as humanists about what the humanities should be. On the one hand, people like Secretary of Education William Bennett and Chicago’s Allan Bloom advocate the study only of the established canon (even though Bloom, in his closed view of the American mind, should have demonstrated conclusively that reading Plato and Rousseau doesn’t automatically lead one to wisdom and happiness). Rigidly interpreted, this approach unfortunately disdains the fruits of the new scholarship and the newly discovered texts by and about women, minorities, and people of non-Western cultures. And while the issue is a complicated one—as the Stanford faculty has acknowledged—ultimately I think it merely adds another variable, albeit an important one, to the process of selection that every teacher undergoes in designing a new course. Or to put it another way, we all share the dilemma of the Stanford faculty when we try to decide what to exclude from our courses in order to allow us to include all else that we deem to be essential.

In contrast to the Blooms and the Bennetts, indeed at the other extreme, are those who are unwilling to make any judgments at all about what is important for our students to know and understand and who argue rather fervently that no books are of any more value than any other books and therefore, of course, no more worthy of study. For example, Duke English professor Jane Tompkins is quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article as saying that the most exciting course she has ever taught focused on the novels of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour and such films as Stagecoach, The Wild Bunch, ET, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She apparently explained to the reporter, “I’m trying to ask about the novels of Louis L’Amour the same questions that Shakespeare scholars ask of Shakespeare.” The problem with relegating Shakespeare to the same status as popular fiction is to my mind that it trivializes Shakespeare and, I suspect, the humanities altogether. It also reinforces an attitude already far too current among our students, an attitude that I think runs counter to the humanities itself, that it is sufficient to read and think only about the immediate, only about that which already interests us. Although such intellectual and ideological differences among faculty as those represented by Bloom and Tompkins are healthy, the problem, I fear, is that we have not made even that case to our incoming college freshmen.

Finally, we have also unhappily tended to give away the humanities to skills courses, to what I have elsewhere called content-free education. Trying to teach our students skills in a vacuum, we have emphasized the process by which they read, write and think, once again, without paying concomitant attention to the significance of that which they read, write, and think about. We have become in that regard a bit like Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! who taught himself the shottische, but did not realize that it was important to perform the dance in time to the music.

In closing, let me note that there is some good news in all of this. MIT has instituted a new humanities requirement for all its students, although its requirement of three courses is far too minimal and its reason, that “too many MIT graduates end up working for too many Princeton and Harvard graduates,” not altogether satisfying. The Association of American Colleges is now working with ABET to provide some substance to the 16 hours of humanities and social sciences courses now required for engineers (and, not parenthetically, to increase the number of courses to seven or eight). Some state departments of education are allowing alternative routes to certification so that future teachers can major in the subject areas they will teach rather than in education. And some universities—like my own—have genuinely reformed general education by placing the liberal arts and especially the humanities at the center of the freshman and sophomore years for all students, whether they are Arts and Sciences majors or in the Colleges of Engineering, Nursing, or Business. But we have succeeded at the University of Tulsa because our outgoing Provost, Thomas F. Staley, has acted on his belief that while the soul of an institution is its curriculum, its conscience can be found in its budget.

Indeed, while it is crucial that Arts and Sciences faculty take responsibility for teaching all undergraduates—whether they are future majors or preprofessional students—it is as essential that administrators embrace and reward such a choice. Specifically, it is crucial that the reward structures of our colleges and universities acknowledge that teaching wonderful freshman courses deserves the same recognition as teaching wonderful graduate seminars and that liberal arts courses are as essential as preprofessional ones. But once again, it takes a certain administrative determination to break into the tyranny of the disciplines and the accompanying territorial imperatives that so often limit possibility—both within and outside of the classroom. I should add, by the way, that our experience at Tulsa has been that faculty scholarship has benefitted from such an approach rather than been limited by it. On the other hand, I must confess that despite our successes in revitalizing the liberal arts, we apparently have failed to reach one student who recently wrote the following in a history exam: “Socialist societies have no tolerance for liberal arts, such as erotic ballet or pornography.”