The Humanities Man the Barricades Against Growing Criticism

The opening message was roundly cheered—it was exactly what the crowd of roughly 150 professors and alumni came to hear at the “Public Universities, the Humanities, and Education in North Carolina” event held on October 10 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

In a more enlightened era, history professor and event moderator Lloyd Kramer said in his introduction, policymakers were committed to the liberal arts, as evidenced by Congress’s creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in 1965. But today, he continued, higher education officials “must constantly defend the arts, creativity, [and the] humanities” against an incursion by powerful outside forces who conflate university education with vocational training.

While such remarks may receive ringing endorsements when preaching to the academic “choir,” they do not do justice to the opposition’s argument. Heightened skepticism regarding the value of the humanities and liberal arts is not just the result of external factors that are outside of higher education’s control, such as economic malaise or policymakers’ job-centricity. Internal problems related to debased curricula and hyper-politicization, for instance, may be more harmful to the future of the humanities.

Unfortunately, at the event, sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program in the Humanities and Human Values of the College of Arts and Sciences, university leaders failed to acknowledge those problems, much less take ownership of them.

There is some truth in the picture presented at the conference, however. Policymakers are increasingly putting emphasis on job placement and technical education over the humanities and some of the social sciences. In 2013, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory received national criticism for saying, “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” Politicians elsewhere have made similar statements and promoted science, technology, engineering, and math degrees while questioning the value of other, less “practical” disciplines.

And there is great value in the study of the humanities that is not always apparent at first glance. Panelists spoke passionately and knowingly about the ability of art and literature to increase empathy and human understanding and to improve students’ critical thinking and writing skills. “From my experience, it is not possible to develop those skills without a liberal arts education,” said UNC system president Thomas Ross. Michael Tiemann, vice president of open source affairs at the software company Red Hat and vice chair of the UNC School of the Arts’s Board of Trustees, said that the convergence of art and science “creates possibilities in a somewhat organic and magical way that leads to discoveries of things entirely unknown” and that his company often hires liberal arts graduates. 

But, as suggested above, there is serious criticism that is not based solely on the humanties’ lack of vocational promise. That criticism also corresponds to Ross’s and Tiemann’s arguments about the intangible benefits of the humanities and raises the importance of defining those subjects in a more meaningful manner. Are liberal arts curricula to include topics of minimal intellectual interest or significance and, for instance, treat comic books as literature, or are they to focus on the best and most important that has been written or said? Are we to interpret works of literature according to the authors’ intentions, or are we to interpret them according to current political agendas?

These questions received scant attention—and when they were mentioned, the panelists came down solidly on the side of current trends. Asked about how coursework can be changed to meet the needs of today’s students, Claude Clegg, an African American and diaspora studies professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggested that schools incorporate “‘hybrid training’ from a variety of disciplines.” 

Clegg said that such training would make the university “the optimal site for taking on some of our grand challenges,” such as climate change. “The curriculum of the future is one that builds on the synergies that can be amassed in a single place to take on [issues] facing humanity,” he said. In other words, education should be used as a tool for advancing a progressive political agenda.

Other panelists were less overtly ideological but nevertheless expressed an unrestrained vision of the curriculum. For example, President Ross said, “It’s not just about which exact courses you take, it is about having a broad-based education that you can bring to bear when solving problems.” 

The philosophy behind that seemingly innocuous statement has produced disastrous educational consequences. It assumes that course content is a peripheral educational concern and that critical thinking, for instance, can be honed in a course on the sociology of Miley Cyrus (taught at Skidmore College in 2014) just as it can be in a course on logic or canonical literature. 

UNC-Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship university, has rushed headlong into a “smorgasbord approach” to general education. Students are allowed to satisfy liberal arts requirements by taking “Comparative Queer Politics,” “The History of Hip Hop Culture,” “Recreation and Leisure in Society,” and other courses that are trendy, narrow, or steeped in the language of social justice advocacy.

The vast range of course options enables students to forgo more serious subjects and disciplines, and the results have not been good; students are now graduating with a deficient knowledge base and, according to employer survey after employer survey, many lack reasoning abilities and written and oral communication skills.

But these trends do not appear to be problematic for some UNC leaders. UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Carol Folt, said at the humanities event that the liberal arts curriculum should adapt according to our “changing and evolving world.” Referencing issues such as campus sexual assault, she said that students are “facing a radically charged world” and that a “liberal arts education that is tailored to the way they think and act is more important now than ever before.” 

Her comments reveal a substantial misunderstanding of what an education should be. Education exists to pass on the wisdom, methods of inquiry, and knowledge of the ages to new generations. Folt’s plea for a liberal arts education tailored to pop culture-devouring millennials who read and study less than any previous college generation and who frequently push for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to avoid hearing multiple views seems more like a call for educational devolution.

Chasing cultural “relevancy” to cater to students would further erode academic quality. The curriculum needs to be reined in, not expanded. 

The failure of the event participants—Kramer, Ross, Tiemann, Clegg, Folt, English professor Marianne Gingher, and finance professor Bill Moore—to go beyond the narrow establishment view of the humanities was disappointing. The audience—indeed, the entire state of North Carolina—needed to hear the hard truths about the current state of the humanities, not idealized accounts of it.

That’s not to say, however, that the panelists didn’t have moments of candidness and rationality. Ross, a Democrat, evenhandedly addressed a loaded political question: How do we deal with a political context that seems to be questioning the liberal arts?

I don’t think you can assume that legislators don’t appreciate the liberal arts…I think a lot of them understand…. Also, we can criticize all we want, but it is still fair to recognize that we are better supported than most states, in the top five in terms of public support.

But all in all, many real problems in the humanities were dismissed with a self-righteous insistence that all is well in those fields—if the outside world would just leave them alone. We will not, however, submit to that wish; the humanities are too important.