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Thomas Lindsay On Why the Humanities Are Really in Trouble

Dec 17, 2011 |  Glenn Ricketts

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Thomas Lindsay On Why the Humanities Are Really in Trouble

Dec 17, 2011 | 

Glenn Ricketts

There's been no end of hand-wringing and effusive public angst recently in the wake of budget cuts at public universities that may significantly trim back funding of humanities departments. What will higher education become without the courses that take us beyond the shallow vocationalism that undergraduate curricula increasingly pander to? Over at Phi Beta Cons, former NEH deputy chairman and longtime NAS member Thomas Lindsay explains that the humanities long ago sold out to ideology and "critical thinking," and haven't been worth the money for some time. If you'd like to get a sense of what study in the humanities might have been at one time, he recommends our recent report, The Vanishing West.

Thomas Thibeault

| December 17, 2011 - 7:51 PM

A small college in Georgia recently adopted “critical thinking” as its academic goal for the next five years. SACS instructed the faculty that any and all exercises in critical thinking had to be “quantifiable.” The faculty sat mute in the meeting, waiting for the college president to take the lead. Even then, they would not say anything which could be construed as critical of the administration. How do you teach people to think critically when the faculty can not or will not think? Reasoning has been reduced to a box on a scantron


| December 19, 2011 - 1:28 PM

Thomas Lindsay notes the book Academically Adrift which documents the lack of learning and increased thinking skills of many American college students—as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment—and relates this to the decline of the humanities. 

But Academically Adrift actually made the point that students in the liberal arts had high gains on the CLA—generally behind only those in science-related fields. 

The laggards were in business, education, and the like—often largely empty subjects that supposedly teach practical skills. 

And guess what—business is an academic field with increasing “business”—administrators often love it because it’s not that expensive, students want it, and it’s often seen as practical by politicians. 

The decline of humanities on campus may have at least as much to do with misguided, philistine administrators and politicians, as with the changes in the humanities. 

And it’s not at all clear that the kind of humanities valued by academic conservatives has that much of an unmet market.  Like it or not, there don’t seem to be that many students lusting for the old programs in western civilization and the like.